Sunday, July 15, 2012

In the Spotlight.... Korea Women

'In the Spotlight' is a series that will profile each of the 24 participating teams at the London Olympic Games. It will provide a glimpse of what to expect as each squad begins its London quest. Between now and the Olympic opening ceremony a new team will be featured every 2-3 days. Today we feature the women's national team from Korea.

The Basics:
Ranked eighth in the FIH World Rankings, Korea’s women are currently on 1423 points and the second highest rated Asian side in the competition after China. Two silver medals are their standout performances, reaching the final in their maiden participation in 1988 on home turf in Seoul. They repeated the trick in Atlanta in 1996 after a fourth place finish in Barcelona. They finished sixth in the 2010 World Cup in Rosario while a seventh place finish in this year’s Champion’s Trophy in January is their most recent world level showing.
The Road to London:
Qualification was achieved with a silver medal at the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010. The vital result proved to be their 2-0 win over Japan in the seventh round of preliminary group games, Kim Jong-Eun scoring both the goals in the second half. It secured their Olympic berth. China took the other Olympic berth and duly won the continental title ahead of Korea in dramatic fashion on penalty strokes.

Players to Watch:

Kim Da Rae was one of their stars in 2011, producing a number of star turns in midfield to earn her place in the FIH women’s All-Stars selection. Kim Jong Eun is their key striker while Park Seon Mi is a wily campaigner up front, too, but suffered an ankle injury in the Olympic test event which she will hope will be fully shaken off come Games’ time. Lee Seon Ok is the defensive rock, captaining the side from back.

The experienced Lim Heung Sin returned to the job after coaching Korea’s youngsters to bronze in the 2009 BDO Junior World Cup with a 2-1 victory over England. He previously was in charge at the 2002 World Cup where the team finished sixth and the 2004 Olympics, ending seventh. The 2010 World Cup saw his side claim sixth place. He goes into the competition with confidence that his team can upset their world ranking and make it to the semi-finals, saying that it is a strong possibility when speaking about the group phases to the Korean Times: “I do not think it is a tough draw. In order to reach the semifinals, we should beat China, Japan and Belgium and either Britain or the Netherlands”. Beyond that, he does not believe overall success is out of the question: “A gold medal will elevate the image of field hockey and the sport can become more widely known and retain a decent pool of talent.”

Speed is their calling card, especially on the counter-attack while they play a very disciplined game. Confidence is also growing having won a Four Nations title in Cordoba ahead of world champions Argentina, Great Britain and New Zealand. Recent results have also seen them marginally better their world ranking of eight as they seek to bounce back after a couple of lean years, notably finishing fourth in the 2011 Champions Trophy. The 2012 Champions Trophy, meanwhile, showed their never say die attitude as they came from 3-0 down to tie with China in their playoff game and won on penalties to gain revenge for their Asian Games loss by the same method.

Korea’s propensity to draw could throw a major spanner in the works for their ambitions of reaching the final four and also in playoff games. It worked in their favour in 2011’s Champions Trophy, managing to reach the final four despite winning just one of six matches but it regularly leaves them open to penalty shoot-out or extra-time defeats. In enlarged tournament formats, it has already cost them dear as ties against Spain and England – had they seen those ties out – would have handed them medal shots. Turning those results into wins – of which at least three are needed in the group phase – will be key.

Crystal Ball:
A side that looks to be improving by increments in the past two years, Korea have shown they will always be competitive and battle to the end as evidenced by their Four Nations victory in January and the narrow scorelines in the last two Champions Trophy competitions. But their inability to grab definitive results in one-off games means the fifth to eighth place playoffs currently looks the most likely outcome.