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Aug 3, 2012

Taeguk Warriors flying the flag

If events in Glasgow a week and a half ago suggested that some in the United Kingdom get mixed up between the two Koreas then, like much of Asia, Korea has little concept of the difference between England and Britain. The two are usually seen as pretty much the same thing but, at the moment, fans everywhere are getting an education in what Great Britain is and is not. If Team GB achieves nothing else, it has at least achieved that.

(To confuse matters further, the 'United Kingdom' is comprised of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 'Great Britain' consists only of England, Scotland and Wales. As such, the official name of the Olympic team is 'Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. However, no Northern Irish or Scottish players have been selected for the final Team GB squad.)

The players of England and Wales, however, want a more tangible reminder of these games in the cold, hard and round shape of a medal, and the way to earn a chance of doing so is to defeat South Korea in Saturday's quarter final in Cardiff. The opposition are keen to show that Team GB's semi-final against Brazil is not yet a done deal. On Friday, Seoul daily Ilgan Sports accused the hosts of arrogance in seeming to know or care little about the Korean team and being more focused on the prospect of a Brazil test.

The tabloid press in Korea can be sensitive when it comes to international matters, but the Taeguk Warriors should be taken seriously - this is a team that has been taking the Olympics very seriously for years. Their last competitive game in the UK was a 12-0 defeat at the hands of Sweden in the quarter-final of the 1948 competition at Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park. After a 1960 appearance, Korea have been at every games since 1988, reaching the quarter-finals in 2004 and coming close to doing so on numerous other occasions.

There is also the likelihood that a place in the last four and a medal would earn the squad exemption from the two-year military service that must start by the time they are 28. There is serious motivation for a team to succeed at these Olympics - the fact that only a couple usually sing the national anthem should not persuade anyone otherwise.

On a personal level, too, there are incentives to impress. Among the 70,000 fans packed into the Millennium Stadium, there will be some Cardiff City fans eager to see their new signing Kim Bo-Kyoung in action. The winger has already scored a smart volley to win the game against Switzerland and is keen to do well in his new home city.

Unlike the hosts, Korea have a player based in Scotland, but Ki Sung-Yeung is unlikely to be at Celtic much longer. QPR and Liverpool have been listed as possible suitors - but as the 23-year-old has been perhaps Korea's best player so far, there could well be others, and there certainly will be if he can star in Cardiff. Goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryeong wants to play in the Premier League too, and so far has done his chances no harm at all.

And then there is Park Chu-Young. The striker's season with Arsenal, which featured only seven minutes of league action, may not have Stuart Pearce shaking in his shoes, but there is hope in history for the former AS Monaco marksman.

Few English fans were too distressed to see Helder Postiga come off the bench after 75 minutes of their Euro 2004 quarter-final against Portugal. After all, he had scored just two goals in 24 games for Tottenham Hotspur the previous season. Yet there he was, just a few minutes later, heading his team level.

Park has played and scored even less for the other North London giant, and not all in his homeland think he should be in the team. Park has yet to dust off the cobwebs after his lengthy period of inaction and has yet to impress, the lovely diving header that gave his team the lead against Switzerland apart. His movement has been sluggish and predictable. He had been scoring for fun for the national team before the Arsenal move, but his confidence is now as shaky as his finishing has been. Against Gabon, he was guilty of missing chances. The sharpness just isn't there.

It is not just about his form, or lack of it. Earlier this year, he upset many of his fans at home by finding a technicality that allowed him to delay his military service for ten years - it was this, more than his London inactivity, that cost him his place in the senior national team in June. A subsequent apology opened the way to the Olympics, but there are plenty who think he should not have been selected at all, regardless of club form.

Rarely has a player had so much to prove in both countries involved in a game at an international tournament, and rarely has he had such an opportunity to do so.

There is cause for optimism for Park and his colleagues. It is expected that playing Team GB will suit the Taeguk Warriors more than any of the opposition from their group games. Korea should probably have won all three games, but the 2-1 victory over Switzerland was sandwiched by frustrating goalless draws against Mexico and Gabon. Korea enjoyed the lion's share of possession in all three games but, the second half against Switzerland aside, failed to create much in the way of clear-cut chances.

Breaking down tight and packed defences has not been a strong point of Korean football down the years. Taeguk Warriors, usually fast and furious on the break and down the wings, like to play teams that attack.

Team GB will not sit back and will test a Korean defence that has only conceded one goal in 270 minutes of football - a pleasing stat for Korean football because the backline was widely thought to be the team's weak link. The noises coming out of the camp suggest talk of a need for the whole team to defend and to press the hosts at all times, give Team GB's players no time on the ball and induce mistakes that will show they have spent, in football terms, no time together at all.

The Korean team, in contrast, has been together for two years and many players are halfway through domestic seasons - they are fit enough to harry and hustle for 90 minutes, perhaps more if need be.

With Korea's strength on the flanks augmented by fast and aggressive full-backs (with Kim Chang-Woo especially impressive on the right), coach Hong Myong-Bo is confident that they can get behind the British backlines and cause serious problems.

If so, and if they can take their chances in front of a packed house and large television audience, few in the UK are likely to have any further doubts about which is the South Korean flag.

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