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Sports

Regulars South Korea eye knockout phases at World Cup

After hosting a vibrant, emotion-packed tournament just over a decade ago, South Korea is maturing as a regular at the finals. But can the budding hopefuls thrive, propelled by a promising core of Bundesliga stars?

South Korea will make their eighth consecutive appearance at the World Cup in Brazil, part of a run dating back to Mexico 1986.

Over these three decades, the country's footballing reputation has crept ever closer to the traditional major powers from Europe or Latin America. Their run all the way to the semifinals on home turf in 2002 made all the headlines, but South Korea has since benefitted from a tangible footprint left by hosting the flagship FIFA event - not something every World Cup host can claim.

South Korea now boast a handful of established professional players in some of Europe's high-profile leagues. One of them has become a well-known Bundesliga name in recent seasons and is already a poster-boy back home.

Bayer Leverkusen's Son Heung-Min will begin his World Cup career with the hopes of a nation already resting on his shoulders. The 21-year-old forward

was a 10-million-euro ($13.7-million) signing from Hamburg

in 2013, having spent three years in northern Germany.

His move to Hamburg progressed through a partnership between HSV and the South Korean Football Association. While two other compatriots failed to make the grade in the club's youth department, Son adapted swiftly to his new surroundings, culture and language.

Fußball Bundesliga 12. Spieltag Bayer Leverkusen gegen Hamburger SV

Merciless: Son smashed three past his old Hamburg teammates early in the season

He went on to make an impressive impact during Hamburg's turbulent trip to seventh in the Bundesliga last season, hitting double-figures before leaving the Imtech Arena. The switch to Leverkusen - and as a direct replacement for Chelsea's Andre Schürrle - made sense for his development. Despite patchy form in his deubt season with the Pharmaceuticals, Son had struck eight times by Easter,

including a winning goal against Borussia Dortmund

and

a hat trick against his old club Hamburg

.

At the finals in Brazil, South Korea compete in a wide-open group with Belgium, Algeria and Russia as their opponents, all of whom might hope to book their place in the knockout phase.

"First of all we are concentrated on the group stage," Son told DW. "We are convinced that we can get through. And after this we will see what is possible. It's the knock-out stage - there are chances for every team."

Should South Korea get through their group, Son could face some familiar Bundesliga adversaries in a possible last 16 clash with Germany.

Host nation boom

Co-hosting the 2002 championships with Japan gave the South Korean game a boost.

With respected Dutch coach Guus Hiddink at the helm, the South Korean locals united behind their team who performed sensationally with wins over Italy and Spain. Losing finalists Germany ultimately eliminated the Koreans in the semifinals.

But the manner in which the competition captivated millions around South Korea, bringing social and economic benefits to the Far East, whilst improving local infrastructure at the same time, is Son's enduring memory from 2002.

"I was a child in those days, so it was very impressive for me what happened in my country in 2002," Son explained. "South Korea enjoyed the role of being host of the world. From the sporting side it was very special for all of us to reach the semifinal of the tournament. Every matchday the nation was spellbound.

The aspiring young footballer was himself was captivated by several stars of the tournament, domestic and international.

"There were lots of memorable players at the World Cup. I have to name Ronaldo [Brazil's scorer of the winning goal in the final against Germany - the ed.]. He was a dream player that I always admired.

"On the other hand, the South Korean national coach Hong Myung-Bo was very impressive for me. He was captain of our team and an idol."

Strong links to Europe

Ja Cheol-Koo and Park Jo-Hoo celebrate a goal for Mainz against SC Freiburg (Photo via Fredrik von Erichsen/dpa)

Mainz's Koo Ja-Cheol and Park Joo-Ho will star for the Red Devils at Brazil 2014 too

As was the case for 2002 co-hosts Japan, the growth of the domestic league in South Korea - the K League - has created strong foundations for the national setup. Star midfielder Park Ji-Sung, who enjoyed a spell at Manchester United, has since retired from international duty and a new generation has emerged.

This committed and collective effort by the K League's clubs to field younger players with promising futures has opened a fruitful pathway to Europe. Nine players from the last squad named against Greece in March play in Germany or England, but there also remains a solid core of homegrown players in the fold.

In addition to Son at Leverkusen, Augsburg have two representatives in Hong Jeong-Ho and loanee Ji Dong-Won, who will move to Borussia Dortmund permanently this summer. Mainz boast the duo of Park Joo-Ho and the record club signing Koo Ja-Cheol, a former Wolfsburg player who enjoyed his Bundesliga breakout season on loan at Augsburg.

Meanwhile, Ki Sung-Yueng (Sunderland) and Kim Bo-Kyung (Cardiff City) regularly start in the English Premier League. The greater exposure to more prominent leagues has added a wealth of experience and talent to the national team, which comfortably qualified for Brazil and also progressed through their group in South Africa.

Progression from the group phase is again the primary goal for the Red Devils, and Son. Yet some South Koreans might hope, considering their squad's quality, to keep themselves in contention for even longer.

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