South Korea and Greece, two teams with their best results of the decade well behind them, meet Saturday in a World Cup match that could have a pivotal bearing on Group B.
South Korea was a surprise semifinalist in 2002 when it co-hosted the World Cup with Japan, while Greece won the 2004 European Championship.
Neither has gone near those highs since, but both have a realistic chance of advancing from a group that also contains powerhouse Argentina and Nigeria.
South Korea started off the 2006 World Cup in Germany by beating Togo 2-1, its first win a World Cup outside Asia, then earned a 1-1 draw with France on a late equalizer from Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung. But the Koreans lost 2-0 to Switzerland, preventing them from advancing to the second round in their seventh trip to the World Cup.
This is Greece’s second appearance at the sport’s marquee event, and the first was extremely forgettable. After finishing first and undefeated in its qualifying group, Greece went to the United States in 1994 with high expectations but lost 4-0 to Argentina, 4-0 to Bulgaria and 2-0 to Nigeria.
Ten years later, Greek football was at an all-time high with its win in the Euros. But Greece couldn’t build on that performance, failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
In the 2008 European Championships, things got even worse. Greece lost all three games and scored just one goal, becoming the first defending champion not to pick up a competition point in the subsequent edition of the tournament.
Greece started off its qualifying campaign for South Africa with wins over Luxembourg, Latvia and Moldova, scoring eight goals and conceding none in Group 2 en route to the European playoff draw against Ukraine. After a 0-0 draw in Athens, Greece earned a 1-0 second-leg win in Donetsk, the decisive goal coming from Dimitrios Salpingidis.
Greece’s chances against South Korea on Saturday won’t be helped by news that centre back Vangelis Moras will sit out the match despite having recovered from a persistent groin injury.
Moras had been receiving daily physiotherapy instead of training in an attempt to overcome the nagging injury. Tests Wednesday showed he was fully recovered, but he said it is too early to be plunged into a World Cup match.
“I don’t want to risk it,” Moras said. “I want to be fit for Nigeria.”
Greece faces Nigeria on June 17 and Group B favourite Argentina on June 22.
Olympiakos defender Vassilis Torosidis and Celtic striker Georgios Samaras will lead Greece, while Park and midfielder Lee Chung-yong will do the same for South Korea, which arrived in Port Elizabeth on Thursday and held a training session at a local stadium.
South Korea and Greece will hold their first and only training session at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Friday, about 24 hours ahead of their afternoon match in the new 45,000-seat facility nicknamed the “Sunflower” because of the unique design of its roof.
Greece manager Otto Rehhagel revealed his strong heartbeat before the first World Cup game of his career, against South Korea on Saturday.
“This is the first World Cup for me and my players and we want the best possible outcome. My heart is beating fast as we are looking forward to this game,” said the German coach, adding that the national team are ready to make a strong start to the tournament in Port Elizabeth.
“We are all happy to be here. We will go down there to win,” pledged the 71-year-old manager in the press conference held on Friday.
“From the tactical side of things, we have seen a lot of the South Koreans. They move like panthers across the pitch. They play a disciplined game.
“They are players with speed. I have told my players they need to be cautious and focused. When children went to school they had to write 100 times what they had done wrong. In football many things can happen. We’ll see who wins tomorrow,” concluded Herr Otto.
Port Elizabeth was the birthplace of the 91-year-old former South African president Mandela, who led the country from 1994 to 1999 after spending 27 years in prison due to his anti-apartheid activities.