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Korean coach has inspired team, nation

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

GYEONGJU, South Korea -- When Guus Hiddink became South Korea's coach in 2000, the expectations of a nation starved for World Cup success were thrust upon him.

With the 2-0 victory over Poland in the co-host's opener, he already has become a national hero.

"Expectations are extremely high, I think, a bit too high for the Korean team," Hiddink said before the tournament. "You must be very down-to-earth, know what we can do, know our position."

Hiddink knows his.

When he took over, there was a TV commercial featuring him. In the credit card ad, with background music ranging from My Way to We Are the Champions to Wagner operas, the no-nonsense Dutchman flashes a smile and lifts his clenched fist, his trademark gesture after a goal.

Then a female narrator says, "Mr. Hiddink, we believe in you."

The commercial was pulled after France crushed South Korea 5-0 at the Confederations Cup a year ago.

At that point, fans and some media questioned Hiddink's style.

"I chose the tough way to get the team on a world level," Hiddink said. "I knew beforehand that can be criticized.

"But I knew I had to go this way."

Hiddink silenced critics with his team's performance against Poland. South Korea allowed just two corner kicks while the speedy attack confounded the Polish backline, which conceded 10 corners.

The team's latest tactics endear Hiddink to fans, who now call him "Mr. He Think." He's the most talked-about member of the squad.

"Maybe half a year ago, there was a lack of confidence also in the media," he said. "Now on the other side, there is an extreme, high expectation. Players are confident.

"That's not a guarantee for victory. We will go for it, but we must have a normal expectation."

HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT: When the collective din of 110,000 spectators swells to fever pitch at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca, visiting players are made to feel, in the words of U.S. striker Brian McBride, as though they're being "swarmed like bumblebees."

So the United States knows what to expect Monday.

"The good thing is most of us have played in hostile environments," U.S. captain Claudio Reyna said. "So that helps us out."

In 1990, the Americans frustrated host Italy, which nearly squandered a lead but held on to win 1-0. Fans of the Azzurri whistled in anger at their own players.

ANTI-AMERICANISM: About 150 activists gathered near the U.S. military base in Paju, 25 miles northeast of Seoul, and burned an American flag.

They demanded compensation for a South Korean man who was electrocuted in July by power wires set up by the U.S. military. They also want the withdrawal of the 37,000 American military personnel stationed in South Korea.

Amid the security fears, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung will not attend the game. And the U.S. embassy in Seoul made plans to close Monday before demonstrations Saturday that included another burning of an American flag.

Despite the hype in the South Korean media, U.S. players have ignored the off-the-field activities and said they are focused on the South Korean players.

"As players for America, we expect a political twist," Reyna said. "All we're doing is laughing about it. It's a game. We're just players representing U.S. soccer."

HOTEL ROOMS: Some South Koreans were taken aback that the match officials are staying in the same hotel the American team will be at tonight.

"It's a little bit strange," Hiddink said.

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