South Korean coach plays it his way

PRETORIA, June 13 (Reuters) - Brave, risky and unprecedented, Huh Jung-moo's decision to ditch goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae before South Korea's World Cup opener against Greece showed he is not cut from the same cloth as other Korean coaches.

Fans feared his appointment in 2007 would undo the progress made under Dutchmen Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat and marked a return to Korea's rigid, hierarchical formula that stifles youth and smothers imagination.

But Huh has been a revelation, breaking with tradition in terms of squad choices and leading South Korea through 2010 World Cup qualifying unbeaten.

While previous Korean coaches placed the emphasis on squad seniority and focused their attention on local-based players, Huh has embraced the youth and dynamism coursing through South Korean football and built his team around players at foreign clubs.

Of the 11 that started Saturday's 3-0 Group B opening win over Greece, six play club soccer abroad including a pair of 21-year-olds occupying key midfield positions in Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yong. At 29, skipper Park Ji-sung is now one of the oldest members of Huh's squad.


But it was his startling decision to replace Lee Woon-jae as his first choice goalkeeper in favour of 25-year-old Jung Song-ryong that confirmed Huh has more in common with his foreign predecessors than his Korean peers.

Lee's penalty saving heroics against Spain in the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals will be remembered as one of the best goalkeeping performances of all time and the 37-year-old was fully expected to enjoy a World Cup swansong in South Africa.

A series of poor performances towards the end of the domestic K-League season set the alarm bells ringing but few could have predicted Huh would drop him from the opening game.

Huh's hand may have been forced by Greece's threat from free kicks and corners.

"The first game is always difficult but we prepared thoroughly," he said after the game. "Our main strategy was looking at Greece's set-pieces."

Korean coaches are typically conservative by nature, placing immense faith in age and experience. Few, if any, would have had the stomach to drop such a senior member of the squad as Lee, who served the country well in the 1994, 2002 and 2006 World Cups.

Dutchman Guus Hiddink led the Koreans to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals on home soil but even he incurred the wrath of Korea's conservative football circles with his fresh approach to man management and willingness to give youth a chance.

Hiddink too took a major goalkeeping gamble when he replaced the immensely popular Kim Byung-ji before the 2002 finals. His replacement? Lee Woon-jae.

South Korea have given themselves a great chance of advancing from the group stage but even if they fail to progress Huh's goalkeeping decision will be remembered as one of the bravest ever taken by a Korean manager.