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Youngsters give Australia hope

The 2003 movie set in the small South Korean city of Hwaseong won awards, received praise from Quentin Tarantino and collected millions at the box office. But as the name suggests, 'Memories of Murder' is not a happy tale. The true story of a serial killer,who killed at least ten women, targeting those wearing red on rainy nights, gripped a nation. He was never found.

Understandably, for Koreans, mention of the city conjures automatic images of the darker side of human nature. But for Australia, it could just become known as the site of the dawning of a new era. On a cold Wednesday evening at Hwaseong's new stadium, a new-look Socceroos side started badly, but recovered to beat South Korea 2-1.

For both teams - enjoying a free round from the final stage of qualification for the 2014 World Cup - the friendly was something of an experiment. The results may have eased a few minds Down Under that had started to worry about the team's medium-term future. The recent past has been great.

After the 1974 World Cup, reached via a victory over South Korea through an intercontinental play-off that needed another play-off as the original two games ended all square, fans Down Under had to wait until 2006 for another appearance. It was worth it, as Guus Hiddink led the team to the second round in Germany. Four years later, Australia, by then part of the Asian Football Confederation, qualified again, just missing out on the last 16 before enjoying a run to the final of the 2011 Asian Cup just a few months later. It was all something of a feast after a famine.

Bellies are still full, but thoughts are turning to the source of future nourishment, post-2014. Despite a poor start to the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup - a win last month against Iraq followed two points from the first three games - it would be a surprise if the Socceroos ddin't make it a hat-trick.

Yet the class of 2006 was not exactly full of pimply-faced juniors even when they took the pitch against Japan on that scorching June afternoon in Kaiserslautern eight years ago. Many of them are still around, but even the likes of Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer, Mark Bresciano and probably Harry Kewell if he ever finds a club, will surely call it a day after the summer of 2014.

Much of the blood introduced by coach Holger Osieck since he took over in 2010 may have been new, but has not been necessarily young. On Wednesday, however, with the north wind making the short journey from Siberia to blow fiercely across the plains an hour south of Seoul, the German threw open the windows to freshen up a stale Socceroo squad.

Highly-rated youngsters such as Ryan McGowan, James Holland and the talented Tommy Oar, with just a handful of appearances between them, started, with others waiting to make their debuts off the bench.

A long and cold night seemed in store when Korea took the lead after 12 minutes. It was a fine goal. Lee Seung-ki scampered down the right, Lee Dong-gook lost his marker and then sweetly swivelled to volley past former Middlesbrough team-mate Mark Schwarzer.

Unlike the Aussies, Korea decided against calling up any European-based players. Coach Choi Kang-hee came to the conclusion that there just wasn't any point disrupting their club careers to drag them over to East Asia for a friendly game in the middle of busy domestic schedules. For Korea, this wasn't a chance to look at young players - most first choice players are younger than the ones who started last night - but it was an opportunity to give some local talent a chance, especially in defence.

Kang-hee never really wanted the job in the first place and he does not give the impression that he enjoys it. As he only smiles upon winning major championships at home or in Asia, it is hard to tell. One thing is for sure, he is never going to get excited about a friendly goal, no matter how easy it is on the eye. Accordingly, he didn't flinch too much when Dong-gook found the net, and everything went downhill from there.

The blow for Korea came on the half hour mark when their best player Lee Keun-ho was carried off, taking the hosts' ascendancy with him. Australia started to come into the match and just before the break, Dutch-based Tommy Oar had the vision to spot Nikita Rukavytsya with a modicum of space in a crowded area and the skill to pick him out with a precision pass. The Mainz marksman did the rest.

While Korea made a slew of substitutions at half-time, Australia coach Holger Osieck introduced his replacements gradually and, just as slowly, the aimless balls out of defence disappeared, the distribution from the back improved and the Aussies started to play. Tom Rogic was the one that all were waiting for and when the teenage midfielder took the pitch midway through the second half, the small Aussie press contingent were on their feet to salute the start of what could be a lengthy career.

Already known to East Asian clubs after the Asian Champions League, the Central Coast man settled into the game instantly, linking up with his team-mates as if they had been playing together for a decade rather than a day, and driving forward at every opportunity.

The Koreans struggled to create anything when they had the ball or pressure their opponents when they didn't - though with a 44-game K-League season about to end, some of the men in red have played over 50 games in the past eight months - and when giant defender Robert Cornthwaite poked home from inches out with two minutes remaining, it brought a win that Australia deserved. By the end of the 90 minutes, there were seven players in the green and gold under 24 and perhaps the most pertinent point was that Australia were at their best when they were at their youngest. The result was not important, although, it always is, especially when you lose. Korea have now lost two and drawn one of its last three games, all against Asian opposition, and questions continue to be asked of the coach, while Australia, for whom the football world was coming to an end just two months ago after defeat in Jordan, are suddenly feeling much happier about the present and the future.

Thanks to these young Socceroos, whatever the name of Hwaseong means to Koreans, it will always have a special place in the hearts of Aussie fans.


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