South Korea, Greece getting in full force before opener
Two South African children, with national flags of South Korea and South Africa painted on their faces, pose together during the opening ceremony for a brand new football pitch at Ikwhezilethemba Primary School in Soshanguve, a township near Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday. / Korea Times Photo by Won Yoo-hun
By Kim Hyun-cheol
With the gates of Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg opening at 10 a.m., Friday, a month-long festival of football will kick off with the opening match between the host South Africa and Mexico.
The 32 participating countries will vie for the golden FIFA trophy at the quadrennial tournament that will continue through July 12, where the world's best players will showcase their skills.
This time, even the opening ceremony will be filled with a visual spectacle to rival the on-field performances to follow. From musical performances by international superstars teaming up with African artists to football legends past and present, a total of 1,581 performers are set to feature on the opening stage at Soccer City.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela will also make a brief appearance at the ceremony to greet fans and players, for a special moment of emotional elevation.
This year's World Cup also has significance for the Taeguk Warriors. In their seventh straight appearance, South Korea looks to reach the first overseas knock-out stage since its shock semifinal campaign at home eight years ago.
To achieve its goal, a victory in the first group B match against Greece is a must.
Amid a whirl of excitement, South Korea and Greece are preparing for their group stage faceoff on Saturday, which will be a largely decisive match for their World Cup campaign.
The Taeguk Warriors left their training camp in Rustenburg Thursday for Port Elizabeth, where they will take on the south Europeans at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Injuries to some key players have worried local football fans of late, but the Korea Football Association announced positive news Thursday, that central defender Cho Yong-hyung has completely recovered from shingles and will be back with the squad. Cho, 26, had been sidelined from the team training for the previous two days due to the illness.
In contrast, Greece will be without Vangelis Moras in its opener, as the Bologna defender failed to get over a right ankle injury he picked up in training.
The game is crucial to both Group B sides, with Argentina expected to easily book a place in the next round and the two countries having to battle it out for the remaining berth with Nigeria.
It's obvious players from those teams are well aware of the meaning of the match. Korean World Cup debutants, however, say they are "more excited about their experience than nervous."
The 1-0 loss to Spain in the final warmup didn't bring the squad down at all, according to midfielder Kim Jung-woo. "Manager Huh told us to brush off the result and focus on Greece," he told reporters during the team training in Rustenburg.
"They have a height advantage, so we will have to keep focused during set-pieces and when fighting for the ball in the air," the Gwangju Sangmu player said.
"But I'm sure we will not concede if we are careful enough in those circumstances. We will take the initiative through rapid counterattacks."
Otto Rehhagel's squad is well aware of that. "Obviously our advantages are our height, free kicks and corners," said Greek midfielder Alexandros Tziolis.
Consequently, Greece is expected to try to make the best of their physical edge. That means either Theofanis Gekas or Dmitris Salpigidis is likely to miss out on a starting place in a bid to tower above the Koreans, with a 1.91-meter tall Angelos Charisteas up front.
It also looks like Greece's players are intent on singling out Park Ji-sung during the game.
"Park is definitely their top player," Greek midfielder Christos Patsatzoglou was quoted as saying. "We've seen lots of DVDs of South Korea, but not only of Park in action.
"We know we have a key game against South Korea. If we win, we are in a position to try to qualify for the next round. It's very important not to lose, everybody knows that."
Moras said South Korea is "a fast team."
"Their players are rapid, and should you lose the ball in open space, they can make you pay the price," he said.
Former Korean team coach Guus Hiddink was quoted as saying in an interview that it is important to first cement the defensive line when facing Greece, a team that "tends to tenaciously wait until its counterpart makes mistakes it can take advantage of."
The Dutchman visited South Korea in late April, when he was interviewed by local television broadcaster KBS.