Talk of South Korean football and two names - Guus Hiddink and Park Ji-sung - instantly come to mind. Hiddink, the Dutch coach, gave the Koreans their best result in the 2002 World Cup while Park gave the young players dreams.
Their aura is such that the South Korean youth team coach Cho Dong-hyun’s face lights up merely at the mention of the two names. “Hiddink has given results in the World Cup. The performance was awesome,” Cho says.
“Now, more and more children are coming to play football. Park is more realistic, he is home grown. He is one with whom we can identify better.” Looking to complete a hat-trick of titles at the AFC Youth Championship, the coach singled out hard work and discipline - that come with the compulsory duty with the Korean Army - as the key to success.
“We do it for our country, and in return, we gain something that makes us better individuals for the rest of our lives,” he says after an extended training session. “And if we work hard here, I don’t see the reason why we shouldn’t complete the hat-trick.”
The Korean session stretched so long that it continues even after the Australians and the Chinese have packed their bags and gone back to their hotels.
China had a heart-break in the last edition of the championship when they went down to South Korea 0-2 in the final at Kuala Lumpur. They would surely want to make amends here, having shown their class in the qualifiers and the warm-up matches.
The qualifiers against Guam and Macau were a cakewalk. And the 3-1 drubbing of Iran earlier this month in Beijing suggests that the Chinese are on the right track.
On Friday, though, it was a rather under-strength Chinese team that trained at the SAI Centre. “Four players, who play for the senior national team are playing a friendly match in Japan and will join later,” said Patrick Lee, the team’s media manager.
“We are here to ensure that we get to the semi-finals and thus qualify for the Youth World Cup in Canada. But there are some very strong teams. South Korea is there and so is Australia and the teams from Central Asia are always a threat.”
He says the weather here is better than what he had expected. “We thought India would be hot and humid. But today, in the afternoon, it seemed decent,” Lee, who arrived here with an 18-member squad on Wednesday night, said.
Pointing out that the role of the government is slowly fading in soccer in terms of subsidy, he says: “With globalisation came sponsors and money. So, now the government subsidies are slowly going down.
This is good for football as the clubs generate funds on their own, inducing professionalism. China was one of the first countries where the AFC started its Vision Asia project and that has helped in the development of football in quite a few cities.”