Having previously participated at two FIFA World Cups, indeed its most recent edition in 1986, and before that back in the 1954 tournament held in Switzerland, South Korea were considered one of the continents footballing powerhouses, albeit not solely for that record. They were also the inaugural champions of the AFC Asian Cup back in 1956, and had also won the second edition in 1960. Furthermore, the South Koreans had been losing finalists in 1972, 1980 and as recent as in Qatar in December 1988.
Back in 1948, South Korea had qualified for the Olympic Games football tournament for the first time, and in the competition held in London, they’d won their preliminary round fixture against Mexico by five goals to three, only to exit at the quarter-finals stage having been drubbed by eventual winners Sweden by 12-0!
In January 1986, Daewoo Royals became the very first South Korean club team to win the continent’s most prestigeous competition for club sides, as they defeated Saudi Arabian club Al Ahli 3-1 in the final in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, the competition was far from the glossy version which is seen today, and the 1985/86 edition was the first to be staged after a 14 years absence.
The country’s most recent feats had been their participation at the 1988 Olympic Games football tournament, indeed staged in South Korea, and at the AFC Asian Cup held in Qatar. While they had drawn against eventual winners Soviet Union and then USA in their first two matches, they had bowed out after the group stage phase in the Olympics having lost their third and final fixture to Argentina by 2-1. They’d fared better at the continent’s nations cup, reaching the final and only losing it to Saudi Arabia on penalties.
Former international player Kim Jung-nam had managed South Korea both at the 1986 World Cup and during their triumphant 1986 Asian Games football tournament participation. A few months after the global event held in Mexico, they ultimately went on to defeat Saudi Arabia by 2-0 in the final held on home soil in Seoul.
Current manager Lee Hoe-taik, indeed another former international, had assumed responsibility prior to the AFC Asian Cup, and with the country’s most recent achievements showcasing their strength, they must have been considered major favourites to progress beyond the initial group stage at the qualification for the 1990 World Cup. They were competing in Group 4 along with Malaysia, Nepal and Singapore, and group victory would ensure their passage through to the decisive group phase, from which the top two nations would progress through to Italia ’90 after a round-robin competition held on neutral soil.
Prior to the start of their World Cup qualification campaign, South Korea only played a single friendly:
05.05.1989: South Korea 1-0 Japan
Goal: Lee Tae-ho
Line-up: Poong-joo, Kang-hee, Min-kook, Yong-hwan, Sang-bum, Deok-yeo (Yoon-hwan), Hae-won, Bong-sub, Soo-jin (Sang-kuk), Yong-se (Tae-ho), Soon-ho
World Cup qualification
AFC Group 4
23.05.1989: South Korea 3-0 Singapore
Goals: Sun-hong 2, Hae-won
Line-up: Byung-deuk, Kang-hee, Min-kook, Yong-hwan, Sang-bum, Young-jin, Bo-kwan, Hae-won, Sun-hong (Tae-ho 61), Soon-ho, Jeong-woon (Bong-sub 56)
25.05.1989: South Korea 9-0 Nepal
Goals: Yong-hwan, Tae-ho (pen.), Sang-kook 2, Yong-se 2, Young-jin, Soo-jin, Min-kook
Line-up: Poong-joo, Kyung-hoon, Yoon-hwan, Yong-hwan (Min-kook h-t), Deok-yeo, Young-jin (Bong-sub 69), Hak-jong, Soo-jin, Tae-ho, Yong-se, Sang-kook
27.05.1989: South Korea 3-0 Malaysia
Goals: Soon-ho, Sun-hong 2
Line-up (4-3-3): Byung-deuk – Kang-hee, Yoon-hwan, Yong-hwan, Sang-bum – Min-kook, Bo-kwan (Bong-sub h-t), Hae-won (c) – Sun-hong, Soon-ho, Sang-kook (Yong-se 67)
03.06.1989: Nepal 0-4 South Korea (in Singapore)
Goals: Hak-jong, Kyung-hoon, Yong-se, Tae-ho
Line-up: Poong-joo, Kyung-hoon, Yoon-hwan, Deok-yeo, Sang-bum (Min-kook 17), Young-jin, Hak-jong, Soo-jin, Tae-ho, Yong-se, Sang-kook (Bo-kwan 73)
05.06.1989: Malaysia 0-3 South Korea (in Singapore)
Goals: Sun-hong, Min-kook, Bo-kwan
Line-up: Byung-deuk, Kyung-hoon, Yong-hwan, Kang-hee, Sang-bum, Jeong-woon (Young-jin 66), Min-kook, Hae-won (Bo-kwan 73), Sun-hong, Soon-ho, Bong-sub
07.06.1989: Singapore 0-3 South Korea
Goals: Yong-se, Soo-jin 2
Line-up: Poong-joo, Kyung-hoon (Kang-hee 67), Min-kook, Deok-yeo, Sang-bum, Bo-kwan, Hak-jong (Bong-sub 54), Young-jin, Tae-ho, Yong-se, Soo-jin
AFC Final Group Stage (held in Singapore)
13.10.1989: South Korea 0-0 Qatar
16.10.1989: South Korea 1-0 North Korea
20.10.1989: South Korea 1-0 China
25.10.1989: South Korea 2-0 Saudi Arabia
28.10.1989: South Korea 1-1 United Arab Emirates