After only one match each, the ongoing East Asian football competition has been a tale of two tournaments for the South Korean men's and women's teams.
The women's team, coached by Colin Bell, suffered a 2-1 loss to Japan to open the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) E-1 Football Championship in Japan on Tuesday. With that, hopes of ending a 17-year title drought at the EAFF event all but evaporated.
The men's side, with Paulo Bento in charge, blanked China 3-0 in their first match Wednesday. The Taeguk Warriors took a big step toward their fourth consecutive EAFF crown and sixth overall while also seeing new faces take the field.
The biennial competition features four countries each in the women's and men's events, and the best teams after round-robin play will be crowned the champions.
The South Korean women will next face China at 7 p.m. Saturday and then Chinese Taipei at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Both matches will be played at Kashima Soccer Stadium in Kashima.
Japan came in as the top-ranked women's team at No. 13, followed by China at No. 16, South Korea at No. 18 and Chinese Taipei at No. 40. To have any chance of winning the EAFF title, South Korea needed to beat Japan in the opening match. With Japan expected to beat both China and Chinese Taipei the rest of the way, South Korea now can hope to finish in second place at best.
And that will take a lot of work too since South Korea have managed only four wins, seven draws and 29 losses against China so far. The most recent defeat was also a painful one, as South Korea blew a 2-0 lead and fell 3-2 in the final of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women's Asian Cup in February this year. South Korea's last win over China came in August 2015.
Ji So-yun, South Korea's lone goal scorer in the Japan loss, blasted her teammates for being too soft and for showing the Japanese too much respect.
"We need to have a winning mentality. It's really tough to keep losing to Japan and China. I want to stop saying we're underdogs," Ji said. "China gave us painful memories (in February). I really hope everyone can compete with a bit more urgency."
In the men's event, South Korea will play Hong Kong at 4 p.m. Sunday and Japan at 7:20 p.m. Wednesday, both at Toyota Stadium in Toyota.
South Korea (No. 28) are the second-highest ranked nation at this tournament, behind Japan (No. 24) and ahead of China (No. 78) and Hong Kong (No. 145). Japan routed Hong Kong 6-0 in their opener, and the EAFF title will most likely come down to the South Korea-Japan showdown Wednesday.
South Korea may be taking this tournament more seriously than others. Japan named 10 international rookies for the occasion. China have assembled a mostly under-23 squad, and even put their U-23 head coach Aleksandar Jankovic in charge, instead of the usual senior team boss Li Xiaopeng.
Bento's side includes national team mainstays, such as midfielders Hwang In-beom and Kwon Chang-hoon, defenders Kim Jin-su and Hong Chul, and goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo. Bento also selected a handful of others with little or zero international experience. Unable to call up Europe-based players for this non-FIFA competition, Bento appears ready to give K League players some long looks before his final World Cup roster selection in the fall.
Against China, four K League players collected their first international caps. With Hong Kong being the massive underdog in Sunday's match, Bento may send even more international rookies into action.
For the women's team, winning the EAFF title would have been a much-needed confidence boost ahead of next year's Women's World Cup, but they got off on the wrong foot.
The key task for the men's team is to identify players that can help on the margins of the fuller version of the squad for the World Cup. Taking home the EAFF trophy would be a nice bonus. (Yonhap)