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May 13, 2014

South Korea's shaky keepers need to improve ahead of World Cup

As another World Cup approaches, it is easy for South Korean fans to think back to the madness and the magic of 2002. It was a time that will never be forgotten by anyone who spent even a small part of that summer in the Land of the Morning Calm.

What is often overlooked about that World Cup was the fact that, take the third/fourth place playoff with Turkey out of the equation (a 3-2 loss for the Reds that was played like an exhibition, an exhibition of friendship, happiness and pride between two teams thrilled at how long they stayed on the biggest stage of all), then South Korea conceded just three goals in six games.

A well-drilled defense expertly marshaled by captain Hong Myung-bo, South Korea haven't been able to maintain that composure in the back since.

At the very back was the goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae. Old Spider Hands was sensational, keeping clean sheets against Poland, Portugal and Spain and then conceding just the once against the United States, Italy and Germany. At the end of it all, former Liverpool and England great Ray Clemence was hyping Lee to the heavens and plenty thought he could be the first Asian keeper to make it big in the big leagues.

That never happened, but it was still a golden time for Korean goalkeepers. Lee's No. 2, who was in the running to be the starter right until kickoff in the opening game, was Kim Byung-ji. Not only did Kim sport a blond mullet in 2002 (and for much of his career), but he was a fine shot-stopper.

Choi Eun-sung was a very good third choice as well. Both understudies were the wrong side of 30 when Guus Hiddink picked his squad but are still going strong. At 44 (yes, 44), Kim is helping Jeonnam Dragons climb to the upper reaches of the K-League while Choi, just a year younger than Kim, is with Asian powerhouse Jeonbuk Motors, though he has just lost his No. 1 status.

That two over-40 goalkeepers are still active in South Korea's top tier suggests that the younger generation is not at the level it should be. The 2014 World Cup is the biggest test yet.

Jung Sung-ryong is the main man but only just. One of just five survivors from the 2010 squad, Jung is 29 and should be at his peak, but his form has fallen far from that. In 2013, a run of mistakes for club Suwon Samsung Bluewings had plenty questioning whether he was worth his place for the Taeguk Warriors. Then an embarrassing slip against Russia (who since has become World Cup opponent) in Dubai last November, eventually led to defeat.

That led to Jung sitting on the bench for the team's North American mini-tour in January. Kim Seung-gyu, who had been looking solid for Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I, came in for the games with Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States, and wasn't entirely convincing, especially in a 4-0 loss at the hands of El Tri in Los Angeles.

Jung returned to the team in a 2-0 win over Greece in March. Despite the clean sheet, South Korea looked uncertain at the back with the woodwork making as many saves as the goalkeeper.

In the first few weeks of the K-League season, Jung has been looking pretty good but the pressure is only just starting. The key to World Cup success and the latter stages lies in his hands, and all of South Korea hopes that he doesn't let it fall from his grasp.