Argentina boss recalls South Korean 'taekwon-do' tactics of last encounter
WHEN Diego Maradona last ran into South Korea at the World Cup in 1986, as far and away the best player on the planet, there was apparently only one way to stop him. "They played taekwon-do, not football, against us," he recalls painfully.
Specifically, he could still remember, nay feel, one particular boot -- a leaping lunge that had him jumping backwards in a desperate attempt to protect his groin. The classic photograph shows a 31-year-old South Korean defensive midfielder, the player detailed to shadow Maradona, perpetrating this Bruce Lee impression.
That assailant just happens to be Maradona's opponent in the opposition dugout today.
"Oh yes, I remember Huh Jung-Moo very well," says Argentina's coach wryly. No wonder his South Korean counterpart could not help sounding a little sheepish about the memory when the subject was brought up on the eve of today's Group B encounter at Soccer City.
"If I had done taekwon-do then, I'm sure the referee would have pulled out a yellow card," recalled coach Huh, a mite defensively. Nobody had the heart to remind him that soon after that tackle, he did go in the book.
The truth was that South Korea were playing their first match in a World Cup that day in Mexico City, a bunch of international novices with little to offer but reckless exuberance.
"To tell the truth, we were intimidated then playing Argentina and a great player like Maradona; it was all an unknown quantity for us," confided Huh, recalling Maradona's brilliance in Argentina's 3-1 win. "It was difficult for us to mark him; it was all a little bit too much."
Almost a quarter of a century on, the old mischief maker Maradona has forgiven, but not forgotten, as he is still prepared to use this episode in evidence against the South Koreans before today's game.
He has talked up the idea that the 2010 version of himself, Lionel Messi, needs protection from referees, implying somehow that he could be the victim of another assault squad. But as Huh was keen to remind him, the team whose quality, pace and energy was evidenced by their excellent 2-0 win over Greece in the opening game are neither dirty nor naive.
"We are a strong team," he said. "He's doing it to rattle us. We're playing a football match; this isn't a war of words."
Of course, Huh's impressive class of 2010 are no longer the old innocents abroad. On Tuesday night at their Rustenburg base, they watched their North Korean neighbours produce a plucky display against Brazil.
Relations between the two nations may have been strained of late, but football can sometimes cut through politics. Indeed, Huh was quite happy to admit that they had taken inspiration from North Korea's heroics in defeat.
"We talked about it as a team; watching a weaker team handling a stronger team, we reflected a lot about it and thought what would have happened if we were in their shoes. We were inspired," he said.
Everyone here was still cooing about the striking impression made by North Korea's Jong Tae-Se, the man who gave us tears during the anthem, then the Brazilians trouble once the whistle blew. He is the Wayne Rooney of North Korea, so legend has it, but in the south, that accolade goes only to one man.
Park Ji-Sung was man of the match against Greece, serving up a goal and a performance that suggested he was ready to step out of the half-light he consistently inhabits as an unsung Old Trafford hero to be acclaimed as one of the best players in the world here.
Not that he would ever blow his own vuvuzela, though, except to concede quietly as he did yesterday: "I'm at the top of my physical condition, at the top of my form and couldn't be better prepared."
To help South Korea come of age at football, we should hasten to add, not taekwon-do. (© Daily Telegraph, London)