The ship that is the South Korean men's national football team has now been left without its navigator, and the onus will fall as much on the players as on the new boss to make sure it doesn't sink further.
Uli Stielike was fired Thursday as the men's bench boss, a decision reached by the Korea Football Association (KFA) barely two days after the country's 3-2 loss to Qatar in a World Cup qualifier.
South Korea remained stuck at 13 points with four wins, a draw and three losses to stay in second place in Group A. They're barely holding on to the final automatic qualification spot, with Uzbekistan only one point back.
Iran have already secured their spot with 20 points. The top two teams from Groups A and B will advance directly to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two third-place teams must go through a playoffs for their final chance.
South Korean players react to a third goal by Qatar in a 3-2 loss in the teams' World Cup qualifying match at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on June 13, 2017. (Yonhap)
South Korea, chasing their ninth consecutive World Cup appearance, will host Iran on Aug. 31 and face Uzbekistan in Tashkent on Sept. 5 to close out the qualifying stage.
And those two matches will be played with a new face on the bench. A few names have been bandied about, including former national team boss Huh Jung-moo, and whoever steps in will be in a difficult position of trying to rally and motivate a group of discouraged and disgruntled players.
In announcing Stielike's dismissal, Lee Yong-soo, who himself resigned as the KFA's technical director, said he believed a homegrown coach should take over the team.
Lee also said the new coach will not just be on the bench for the remaining two qualifiers, but will lead the team through the World Cup should South Korea qualify.
In terms of recent performances, South Korea have been dismal at both ends. Look no further than the Qatar match, where shoddy coverage and defensive zone turnovers led to all three goals. South Korea did score twice, their highest output in an away match during the current qualifying round but lacked the delicate touch around the net to convert more chances.
Stielike and the players were busy passing the buck to one another. The former coach at times threw his players under the bus in the media. When pressed about his tactics once, he responded by criticizing the players for their failure to execute plays. Stielike also said he wished he had a striker like Qatari forward Sebastian Soria.
Players in turn have openly questioned Stielike's choice of formations. One, captain Ki Sung-yueng, then directed the blame toward the media, saying their negative coverage of the team put an undue amount of pressure on the players, and it affected their performance on the pitch.
Members of the South Korean men`s football team arrive at Incheon International Airport on June 14, 2017, following a 3-2 loss to Qatar in a World Cup qualifying match in Doha. (Yonhap)
Whether Ki's argument is sound is beside the point. This is clearly a team in disarray, and the new coach, on top of trying to establish his system, must be able to push the right buttons with the players and get them motivated again.
Ki did say the players have to do their part, and he's right about at least that point.
"We all want to play well, but we can't get it done on willpower alone," Ki said Wednesday after returning from Qatar. "I hope the next two matches will give us an opportunity to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize just how hard we have to work."
Determination or not, South Korea face a tough schedule. South Korea haven't beaten Iran since January 2011 and have lost each of the past four meetings by the scores of 1-0. South Korea have 10 wins, three draws and one loss against Uzbekistan, the lone loss coming way back in 1994. But unless South Korea can turn things around, their recent showing points to a challenging contest on the road.
South Korea are winless away from home in this stage, with three losses and a draw. (Yonhap)