Uli Stielike leaves South Korea with Russia 2018 hopes hanging by a thread
Uli Stielike may have been the longest-serving South Korean coach in history but the German's legacy as he leaves the country is the endangerment of a proud record of successive World Cup appearances. It seems strange he could be fired with the team still in the automatic qualification slots for 2018 but few in the country disagree that the time was right to make the change.
Stielike was given his marching orders by the Korea Football Association (KFA) on Thursday, less than 48 hours after a 3-2 defeat at Qatar -- a team that had been bottom of Group A in World Cup qualifying. In itself it was disappointing but it was the third loss in the last five World Cup qualifiers and another sign that all was not well.
It left the Taeguk Warriors -- despite just 13 points from eight games -- still sitting in second. The top two go through to Russia automatically but it's tight. With two games remaining, Korea have to face the dominant and already qualified Iran and then travel to third-placed Uzbekistan, currently just a point behind. In what has been a group of mediocre quality, Korea have struggled to put in a decent performance.
There was no confidence in the KFA or the country that the 62 year-old, who has been cutting an increasingly irritable and nervous figure on and off the pitch in recent months, would get the necessary results. And even if he did, the fear was that on present form, Russia 2018 would turn out to be about a pleasant as experience as Brazil 2014 when the team managed one solitary point.
Maybe the worst part was that there was also little confidence Korea would win in Qatar. Iran had defeated Uzbekistan the previous day to take pressure off the men from Seoul. A win in Doha and Russia would be right there. Instead, they lost. In eight games in the group, Qatar have scored just six goals. Five of those have come against Korea.
Stielike, appointed in September 2014, started well and took the team to the final of the 2015 Asian Cup. The tournament started with uncertain performances but the team grew as their time in Australia extended and by the time the final came against the hosts, Korea were looking good. Had a little luck gone their way in Sydney it could be the East Asians heading to Russia right now for the Confederations Cup.
Then came the second round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, with 27 goals scored and none conceded. The opposition may just have been Kuwait, Myanmar and Laos but it was encouraging nonetheless. According to officials at the KFA, however, there was surprise at just how proud the former Real Madrid midfielder was of those victories, leading some to wonder if he was the right man to inspire a squad that contained players from the Premier League and the Bundesliga.
If there was a turning point on the pitch, it came around 9.30 pm on Sep. 1, 2016 in Seoul. Korea were leading China 3-0 in the first game in the final round of qualification. Yet with about 20 minutes remaining, two Chinese goals had the Korean defence rocking and the team just about hung on. The belief that Stielike had done what predecessors could not and solve the country's long-standing defensive issues was dashed and Korea have not looked the same since.
It was followed by a dire performance and a 0-0 draw against Syria, a nervy 3-2 win over Qatar and then a 1-0 loss in Iran that was nowhere near as close as the scoreline suggested. Iran were everything Korea weren't: organised, confident, tactically adept and dangerous.
Things got worse in 2017 with a first ever competitive loss to China and another dismal performance. That led to the first debate in the media as to whether it was time to make a change. The same discussions were taking place inside the KFA but Stielike was given a reprieve. Losing to Qatar, for the first time in 33 years, marked the end.
It is likely there will be a temporary domestic replacement for Iran and Uzbekistan, with a foreign coach appointed if the team qualifies for Russia. Korea have been here before. In fact, it is rare when a qualification campaign does not see at least one change of coach and a new man brought in just months before a World Cup.
Privately, the KFA admit this damaging cycle of short-termism has to be broken. But not just yet. The World Cup is too important for that.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.