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S. Korea entering World Cup qualifier vs. Thailand under cloud of controversy

SEOUL, South Korea will enter their next FIFA World Cup qualifying match this week under a lingering cloud of controversy, with the team's interim boss trying to shield players from the media. South Korea, world No. 22, will host 101st-ranked Thaila...


SEOUL, South Korea will enter their next FIFA World Cup qualifying match this week under a lingering cloud of controversy, with the team’s interim boss trying to shield players from the media.

South Korea, world No. 22, will host 101st-ranked Thailand at 8 p.m. Thursday at Seoul World Cup Stadium, for the teams’ third Group C match in the second round of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.

South Korea won their first two matches in November last year. There are nine groups of four, and the top two nations from each group will advance to the third round.

South Korea will be heavily favored in this home-and-away showdown against Thailand, who will host the Taegeuk Warriors next Tuesday in Bangkok.

The focus of Thursday’s match will likely be on what players say and how they handle themselves off the field, rather than how they will play on the pitch.

It will be South Korea’s first match since their 2-0 loss to Jordan in the semifinals of the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar in
February. The disappointing results, as South Korea failed to end their 64-year title drought, cost head coach Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

On top of the semifinal exit, controversy that emerged afterward has further angered fans here.

It was belatedly revealed that midfielder Lee Kang-in had been involved in a scuffle with team captain Son Heung-min over a game of table tennis on the eve of the Jordan match. Son suffered a dislocated finger in the incident, and Lee, one of the team’s youngest players at 22 at the time, took a beating from the public for challenging the authority of Son, one of South Korea’s most beloved athletes and a highly respected skipper.

Son wanted the team dinner before the match to be an opportunity for bonding, but Lee and some other junior members of the team finished their meal early to play table tennis. Son and Lee got into a shoving match when Lee defied Son’s order to rejoin the rest of the team.

Lee later visited Son in London, where the latter plays for Tottenham Hotspur, t
o apologize in person. The photo of the two principal figures smiling with arms around each other, posted on Son’s Instagram page, did little to assuage fans.

Hwang Sun-hong, caretaker manager for the two March matches, named Lee to his squad last week, in defiance of criticism. While many felt it was too soon to put Lee back on the national team, Hwang said delaying the inevitable — selecting Lee is a no-brainer under normal circumstances given the talent of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) playmaker — will not solve anything. Hwang also said he wanted to give Lee a chance to address the team and the media before resuming his international career this week.

Lee is scheduled to arrive in South Korea later Tuesday and is expected to read from a statement Wednesday without taking questions from the media.

Following what people have dubbed “Ping Pong Gate,” the Korea Football Association (KFA) was hit by another controversy. A senior member of the national team support staff was stripped of his duties last week af
ter he’d been found to have bet money on card games with a few players during the Asian Cup.

The KFA explained that players and the official only wagered small sums of money on their games, but fans were further angered when they found out the KFA official had packed casino-style poker chips for the tournament.

When Hwang opened camp Monday afternoon at Goyang Stadium, just northwest of Seoul, he spoke in a media scrum but did not make any player available for interviews. The KFA typically sends two players each day for interviews in South Korea’s leadup to an international match. Hwang, trying to protect his players, decided to do away with that practice this time.

The training session for Tuesday will be held entirely behind closed doors, also an unusual arrangement. The KFA has also scrapped a plan for an “open training session,” where a select number of fans can watch their favorite players work out in person.

Hwang said he was responsible for these decisions.

“I’ve spoken to players, and they are qu
ite uncomfortable with the attention they’re getting,” Hwang said Monday. “And they’re in a tough spot mentally. I would ask the media and fans to help our players focus on preparing for the upcoming matches.”

Hwang said Son will keep his armband on as captain and he will take a moment to sit down with both players to talk things over.

“I want to hear what they have to say. We’ll have discussions on a number of topics,” Hwang said. “Even though we’re only going to be here a short while, we can all agree that we have to resolve some issues. And we’ll have to talk about how best we can do that.”

Lee has played well since rejoining PSG after the Asian Cup, but Hwang wasn’t ready to award Lee a spot in the starting lineup.

“I can’t tell you right now how I am going to use him. It’s something I’ll decide after meeting him here,” Hwang said.

Source: Yonhap News Agency