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Opinion: June Qualifiers to Determine Bento's Fate

Following a less than inspiring performance against Japan in Yokohama, is there reason to believe that Paulo Bento's future as manager of South Korea's men's football team is under threat?  The Taeguk Warriors' performances under the Portuguese sideline boss have left much to be desired and there is reason to believe he may not have long left if World Cup qualifiers in June do not show a marked improvement.  Criticism has already surfaced in the national media, but Bento for his part is taking full responsibility for the result.  Is it a case of too little too late?  KLU's Branko Belan examines the current situation.
(Photo courtesy of AFC )

Paulo Bento took over as manager of the South Korean men's national team in August of 2018 following the team's group stage exit at the World Cup in Russia.  Shin Tae-yong did not meet the expectations of the Korean Football Association, and the decision was taken to appoint a foreign manager as a change of direction.  Two and a half years on, it seems there has been little improvement, at least in terms of results where the senior team is concerned.  

A Shocking Performance in Yokohama

Bento's men looked completely flat in the first half, barely even presenting a threat in the attacking third and it was no surprise for them to be down a pair of goals at the break.  They looked shaky defensively through the first quarter of an hour and went behind when a defensive error eventually had Miki Yamane in on goal, and he slammed the ball into the net off the underside of the crossbar.

Things would get worse just over ten minutes later when Daichi Kamada wasn't picked up on the overlap on the right flank, allowing him to race forward, flat-footing the Korean defence before cutting in and firing a low drive across Jo Hyun-woo, who was helpless in the Korean goal.  Bento's squad was not able to mount any kind of response before the end of the half, much to the dismay of the Korean fans in attendance.

Kim Seung-gyu would take over between the sticks to begin the second half, and if not for him, the result on the night could have been much worse.  He made several saves to keep the margin at just two goals, but Japan would get a third late when the Korean defence switched off on a corner, allowing Wataru Endo a free header which he promptly slotted home.

Japan celebrate their opening goal. Photo courtesy of AFC.
Japan were by far the better team on the night.  Despite already having put the match away, they continued to press for more in second half injury time.  They were faster, quicker and had much better control of the ball.  Their closing speed defensively left Korea without answers the entire night.  It was a comprehensive performance from Hajime Moriyasu's men.

Understandably, there was quite a bit of consternation after the match.  The result was identical to the last time the countries played a friendly match back in 2011, raising questions about how the team will adjust ahead of World Cup qualifiers in June.

Media Backlash

As expected, the response from the media immediately following the match was swift and unforgiving.  "The Yokohama Disaster" was immediately compared to what happened in Sapporo in 2011, with most in agreement that the overall performance was terrible.  Bento's tactics were widely criticized, with him being labeled as stubborn for failing to take a new approach against a more athletic opponent.  

Many even commented that because of the failure to change, the result was foreseen.

 In a curious move, Lee Kang-in started up top as a lone striker instead of Na Sang-ho who played in midfield.  There was no flow to Korea's play and it showed early and often as they couldn't create passing lanes forward to create pressure in the final third.

Netizens also got in on the criticism, citing the fact that the Japanese flag was stitched onto the jerseys of the Korean players, questioning the pride of their own players in playing so poorly as they did.  The issue drew so much ire that a petition appeared on the Blue House website, questioning the motivation of doing so.  The Japanese flag is still regarded as a symbol of colonialism to many in Korea.  Kit sponsor Nike explained that it is customary for both flags to be on the shirts, as they were during the World Cup in Russia and during their friendly tour in Austria, but that simply won't be enough to calm the fire stoked by the latest incident.

Bento Assumes Responsibility

Bento himself took responsibility for the result.

"I admit that things didn't work out the way we intended them to. In the first half, we only ended up passing the ball around the middle of the field. We only got a little better at it in the second half," he noted.

"When we first agreed to play this match (earlier in March), we felt we'd be able to play a competitive game," he continued. 

"Since then, a lot of things changed and some difficulties emerged on our end. We just didn't play well. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out what we have to do to get better."

He deflected concern over the absence of Son Heung-min as a reason for the poor showing.

"That's not an appropriate question, and it's also not fair to the players that are here.  If I were to say the match would have played out differently with the missing players in the lineup, then I wouldn't be honest with myself, and I would only be making excuses for this result," he finished.

The Complicity of the KFA

It would be wrong to assume that the KFA should take no responsibility under the circumstances.  The decision to go ahead with the match was widely criticized, with new coronavirus cases in Japan hovering around 1,000 per day.  But, the KFA insisted on going ahead with the match with one of the reasons being a need to assemble the national team after having been away for so long.  Despite this, concerns over player safety charged to the forefront, and for obvious reasons.  There were reports that an official from the Japanese Football Association tested positive for COVID, so there is reason to be concerned once the players return to Korea, especially after several players tested positive following their friendly excursion to Austria last November.

The role of the KFA must be examined a bit more closely because marketing a rivalry match in the middle of a pandemic does not set them in a good light.  They could have had selfish reasons for the decision to play, but with so many precautions to take into consideration, many contend it would have been wiser had the friendly not gone ahead.

Several players were out through injury and foreign-based players like Kim Min-jae, Lee Jae-sung, Hwang Hee-chan, Kim Moon-hwan, and Hwang Ui-jo were not made available by their clubs due to coronavirus restrictive protocols in their respective countries.  Getting overseas players involved was always going to be an impossibility, but the federation still decided to take the risk, which of course did not pay dividends.

Football association president Chung Mong-gyu later issued an apology for the poor performance and organization of the match, but time will tell if his pledge of a "new national team" will come to fruition.

A Traditional Rivalry Tarnished?

The Korea-Japan rivalry isn't what it once was.  Most recently, the two sides have only faced off in the EAFF E-1 championship, involving mostly domestic squads for both teams, meaning that players based outside their respective countries usually don't get considered for selection because the competition takes place at the end of the year when domestic leagues around the world, and particularly in Europe, are well underway.

This creates concerns over travel, fatigue, and potential risk of injury.  With Japan winning as comprehensively as they did in Yokohama, it also breeds the question of whether the rivalry has become too one-sided, however, the sample size is too small to make such a determination.  The full senior teams have not played each other often enough for that consideration to be taken into account, but for historical reasons, the response to the performance in Korea was markedly negative and deservedly so. 

Deja Vu for Bento?

South Korea is not Bento's first managerial post at the international level.  He also coached his native Portugal to the EURO 2012 semi-finals, where they lost on penalties to eventual champions Spain.  He would qualify them for the World Cup in Brazil two years later following a 4-2 aggregate success against Sweden in the playoffs, but they would not progress past the group stage of the tournament, with a 4-0 loss to eventual champions Germany being Bento's downfall.

Paulo Bento is under pressure to perform the rest of the way to ensure South Korea's tenth consecutive World Cup qualification.  Photo courtesy of The Korea Herald.
After beginning the qualification campaign for EURO 2016 with a 1-0 home loss to Albania, Bento was given his dismissal, with rumors floating that the players had lost faith in his tactical approach and no longer wanted to play for him.

Korea's 2019 Asian Cup campaign can be counted as a failure as well.  Despite winning all three group matches, they only scored four goals.  While they didn't concede any, China, Kyrgyzstan, and the Philippines were opposition who should have been handled in a more convincing fashion.  They then needed extra time to defeat Bahrain before getting knocked out at the quarterfinal stage by eventual champions Qatar.

With the focus now squarely on the coming qualifiers, he needs to re-evaluate how to move forward.

World Cup Qualifying to Resume in June

The best course of action would be to attempt to put Yokohama in the rearview mirror as soon as possible and focus on the upcoming qualifiers for Qatar 2022 in June.  Korea will play four matches against their Group H counterparts Turkmenistan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, and Lebanon, and will have to be much more convincing than they have been thus far.

The distinct advantage they do have is that they will play all of the matches on home soil as was determined by the AFC earlier this year.  Bento knows he must take full advantage of the opportunity.  There is no more room for error.  

His future with the national team depends on it.

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