(Korea Professional Football League-Yonhap)
With South Korea on the verge of reaching the 2022 FIFA World Cup, players from the domestic league will have a couple of cracks this month at stating their case for inclusion on the national team for upcoming qualifying matches.
The first will come in the form of a friendly match against Iceland in Antalya, Turkey, on Saturday. The kickoff at Mardan Sports Complex is 2 p.m. local time, or 8 p.m. in Seoul. This will be the first meeting between the 33rd-ranked South Korea and 62nd-ranked Iceland. South Korea will then play the 181st-ranked Moldova next Friday, at the same venue and the same kickoff time.
South Korea head coach Paulo Bento set up winter training camp in Antalya over the weekend, in preparation for World Cup qualifiers coming up against Lebanon on Jan. 27 and Syria on Feb. 1.
However, because the camp didn't fall into the FIFA international match window, clubs weren't obliged to release players for the occasion in the midst of their seasons. Among the absent are national team captain Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Kim Min-jae of the Turkish club Fenerbahce.
Instead, Bento selected 25 out of his 27 players from South Korea's K League, with the two exceptions being Kashiwa Reysol goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu and Gamba Osaka defender Kwon Kyung-won, both based in Japan. Seasons in those two leagues are long over.
Bento has been using this camp to get a longer look at K League veterans who have been part of the World Cup qualifying run so far and also test younger faces for the first time. Five players, Gangwon FC midfielder Kim Dae-won, Busan IPark midfielder Kim Jin-gyu, Gwangju FC midfielder Eom Ji-sung, Gimcheon Sangmu midfielder Ko Seung-beom and Seongnam FC defender Choi Ji-mook, earned their first senior national team callups. Among others, Suwon Samsung Bluewings forward Kim Gun-hee and FC Seoul forward Cho Young-wook have trained with the national team in the past but are looking to get into their first international matches.
Bento typically selects about seven or eight players from Europe or Middle Eastern clubs for World Cup qualifiers. However, Son and Hwang are both sidelined with injuries and are expected to miss the next two national team contests. That provides an extra opening for South Korea- or Japan-based players to crash through and earn playing time.
In the final Asian qualifying round for the World Cup, South Korea rank second in Group A with 14 points, two back of Iran, with four matches remaining. The top two countries from each of the two groups will punch direct tickets to Qatar for the sport's showpiece event kicking off in November. With an eight-point cushion over the third-seeded United Arab Emirates (UAE), South Korea can clinch an automatic berth with a combination of their win over Lebanon and UAE's loss to or draw against Syria on Jan. 27.
South Korea have played at every World Cup since 1986 in Mexico. (Yonhap)