Recently offering a post-mortem on Korea's 4-0 loss to Ghana last week in Miami, Korean head coach Hong Myung-bo said a player who could serve as "a control tower" would have kept the score more respectable.
Though Hong is hardly one to single out players or throw his men under the bus, he might have directed his rare public criticism at midfielder Ki Sung-yueng.
The 25-year-old has long been known for his poise and vision as a holding midfielder, with his physical play and superior instincts allowing him to dictate the pace on offense and keeping opponents at bay on defense.
Very little of such talents was on display against Ghana, though. Just five minutes into the contest, Ki took down Ghanan forward Abdul Majeed Waris with a hard tackle. Waris left the match with an injury and Ki picked up a yellow card.
The early yellow kept Ki from playing his usual aggressive football, which in turn opened up space for Ghana to exploit. Incidentally, Waris' replacement, Jordan Ayew, scored a hat trick, and more than a few disgruntled fans took out their frustration at Ki for allowing Ayew to enter the game.
Perhaps discouraged by his recent performance, the Swansea City midfielder was more subdued than usual in an interview Thursday in Foz do Iguacu, Korea's base camp for the FIFA World Cup.
Korea has been paired with Russia, Algeria and Belgium in Group H and will open the tournament against Russia on Tuesday in Cuiaba, north of the base camp.
Though he's only 25, Ki is expected to be among the leaders on the current team. He is one of just five players with prior World Cup experience, having played in the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
His voice barely audible, Ki said he would rather be a player who leads by example than a vocal type.
"In my book, a good leader shouldn't just be a rah-rah guy," Ki said. "A leader has to show something on the field. If it's an attacking player, he has to score goals. If it's a midfielder, he has to create chances for his forwards. That is leadership to me."
Ki also said he and his fellow players have learned a great deal from that big loss.
"We need to be more organized once the tournament starts," he said. "Otherwise, it will be difficult for us to face superior teams and play effective man-to-man defense. As long as we can shore up our organization, we should have plenty of chances."
Ki said he is well aware of the role he's expected to play on and off the field this time around.
"I do feel a heavier sense of responsibility this year," he said. "I have to play better than I did back then and pick up the slack for other players, too."
Ki may have a tough time topping his performance in 2010. Playing in his maiden World Cup at age 21, Ki set up two goals on free kicks in the group stage to help Korea reach the round of 16.
"Obviously, it'd be great if we can score on set pieces, and I think I've gotten better with my kicks over time," the team's designated set-piece taker said. "My teammates should consciously try to score goals in those situations." (Yonhap)