Friday, March 07, 2008


Heffalumps and Rabbits, Part 2

More musings on the meetings of teams a class apart, this time focusing on the Argentina v. South Korea game from the 1986 World Cup.

Let me say initially that, having seen quite a few of their games now, I have rather mixed feelings about the Argentinian World Champions of 1986 (and not just because of the “Hand of God” goal). Although it was very fitting for the finest player of his generation to lift the trophy, his albiceleste colleagues were not, in all honesty, a world-class side.

Their defence was often all at sea, their finishing left much to be desired, and, most importantly, many of the most impressive teams in that event (Brazil, France, Denmark, Spain etc.) were conveniently, sometimes fortuitously, knocked out by other sides along the way.

Bobby Robson, prior to his England side’s meeting with the eventual champions, commented that “…without Maradona, Argentina would have no chance of winning the World Cup”. It’s hard not to agree.

In their first game from the tournament, however, Argentina were indeed made to look very good by their opposition: South Korea, back in the World Cup after an absence of 32 years. Faced with one of the tournament favourites in their TV-era debut, the Koreans adopted rather craven tactics.

In his History of the World Cup, Brian Glanville puts most of the blame for Korea’s defeat on their goalkeeper Oh Yeon-Kyo, but this is unfair. Although slow off his line initially, Oh grew in confidence during the match, made two good saves in the second half, and ultimately did somewhat better than his opposite number, Nery Pumpido.

Rather, it was the general game-plan of the Koreans that allowed Argentina to dominate.

They completely allowed Argentina to dictate the pace of the game, right from the outset; Maradona’s men built attacks from the back in their own andante rhythm, and the Koreans put them under little pressure on the ball. Or rather, they saved all their attentions for Maradona, who was fouled clumsily several times in the opening half.

And when Korea came up with the ball, lofted balls to the strikers were the order of the day. It was a curious strategy, given that physical prowess was not exactly a feature of the Korean side; although they did indeed latch on to a couple of useful second balls around the area in the first period, once forcing Pumpido into a smart save, their tactics ultimately allowed Argentina to remain comfortably in control.

2-0 was the score at half-time, and it might have been more. Another writer who mentions the game in passing is the Australian historian and World Cup fanatic J. Neville Turner, who commented that South Korea “would be hard pressed to make the English Fourth Division”. That was certainly the impression one would have gotten from their first-half performance.

Another goal was added early in the second half, and the Argentinians, not surprisingly, relaxed somewhat. It was then that the Koreans suddenly appeared to remember that they had a weapon of their own to counter the subtle build-ups of their South American opponents: speed.

Abandoning the useless punts upfield, the Koreans finally began moving off the ball, and outrunning their opponents, as they could surely have done from the beginning. Especially notable was the willing substitute Byun Byung-Joo's utter dominance of the one-paced Oscar Garre on Argentina’s left.

It became clear, too, that the Koreans had skills of their own, which had largely been hidden in the first half.

From the hour mark onwards, Korea were totally in control, and for all Argentina’s three-goal advantage, they looked dreadfully shaky against these quick, suddenly confident unknowns. Maradona completely disappeared from view. Choi Soon-Ho was left all alone in the box on 69 minutes, but blazed wide; Pumpido was forced into a save from close range a minute later, in a move during which Korea should have been awarded a penalty. Then, on 72 minutes, came the goal. Have a look.

Would you believe that the team in red, passing snappily, darting past their opposite numbers in midfield, and finishing beautifully, were the newbie no-hopers…and that the team sticking all their men in the penalty-box and essentially giving up the ghost were the world champions-to-be?

As the shrewd, deadpan Italian commentator remarks: “Argentina seem completely out of the game.”

Indeed they did, once the Koreans started playing to their strengths.

Argentina pulled themselves together in the final quarter-hour, but had to rely on some unseemly time-wasting (and some more clever foul-drawing by Maradona) to take the wind out of the Koreans’ sails.

What might have happened had the Koreans elected to use their pace and neat skills from the outset…as their team of 2002 did, in fact?

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