“Korea, you can be proud of your boys.”
Those are the words that were spoken in Korean by Uli Stielike in his final Asian Cup press conference following the extra time defeat of his South Korean team to Australia in Saturday night’s climax.
“So for the future,” explained the former German international, “we are on the right way because we have this group.”
Stielike has only been at the helm of the South Korean national team since September, joining after a dismal World Cup in which the national team failed to win a single game for the first time this century.
The nation was desperate for the regeneration of their team and the Korean Football Association believed the 60-year-old, with his several years of experience coaching and development across Germany’s national youth levels, was the right fit.
The four months leading up to the Asian Cup resulted in some questionable performances and see-sawing scorelines as the enthusiastic manager looked for the pieces to his puzzle.
He made statements in his team selections, from dropping the experienced Park Chu-young for his run of poor form to the inclusion of Lee Joon-hyub from army side Sangju Sangmu for his Asian Cup squad.
“We call him ‘Soldier’ [because] he’s in the army,” said Stielike of Lee. “I saw him several weeks before we started the tournament.
“He didn’t even play in his team. His team was in the second division, he was on the bench. I saw him in one game, he came in on the 70th minute and I saw just the movement of this guy. I said, “This guy I will follow in his next game.”
“We followed him and took him here. It’s the first time that [Lee] is in a national team. It’s the first time that this guy is on television. And he did a great, great job.”
It’s bold decisions like this that have paid dividends for Stielike and the South Korean team over the last six months.
South Korea’s last title was in 1960, and prior to this year their last final appearance was in 1998. South Korea made it all the way to January 31 without conceding a single goal.
Despite their loss at the final stage, Stielike appeared to have rekindled something that he discovered had been lacking for quite some time in the national team: spirit.
“Even if we [conceded] two goals today, I’m very satisfied with the aggressiveness and defensive work. Sometimes we are a little bit naive, like in the second goal, when we offer the ball on the [edge of the box].
“I think two or three times we were in a position to keep the ball out or to clear, and this is a little bit of what is missing in the team, but this will come step by step, because we have a lot of players that played seven, eight, 10 games [for the national team.
“So we need a bit more time and what we need is in the [development] of players in Korea. We [need to] start working more on the ball, because we aren’t calm when we’re playing against pressure. So we play a lot of long balls and these are things that we have to improve.”
If you suggest to the experienced coach that his team aren’t winners, he’ll give you a different story.
“I do not agree we are not champions,” Stielike insisted. “I agree we don’t have the cup, but like our players played today, we are also champions of a lot of hearts.
“In all the messages which I received now in the minutes after the game, everybody is giving a big hand to the players, recognising today was a game that could have been won by either side.
“I personally think the best thing for this game would be a draw and both teams take two years with the cup at home. It cannot be like this, but I think both teams came into the final at the right moment.
“We are second, but we [achieved that] with the whole group. We didn’t work only with 14, 15, 16 players, we worked with 22 players. And for that also I think we have a good way to go.”
Fans back home have a renewed hope in the Taeguk Warriors, while development is beginning to move in the right direction.
South Korea now turn their heads not only to the upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers, but also the East Asian Cup held in Wuhan, China in August and the U-17 World Cup hosted by Chile in October. Each tournament will provide chances for Stielike and the KFA to align their development plans.
While the Korean Peninsula will have to wait at least another four years for the Asian Cup to return to its shores, the population can rest assured that there’s somebody at the helm who can help to bring them that dream.