When Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed as head coach of South Korea in February 2023, he asked fans and media to judge him on the Asian Cup and pledged to bring the trophy back to Seoul for the first time in 64 years.
A year on and it is time for the German to be judged – but the verdict may not be to his liking, after South Korea lost 2-0 to Jordan in Tuesday’s semi-final.
The Middle Easterners, ranked 64 places below South Korea at 87th in the world, had never beaten the Taeguk Warriors before and were in their first major semi-final – but proved superior in every aspect.
The star-studded South Korea team had arrived with high hopes of ending their long wait for a third continental title.
Tottenham forward Son Heung-min and Wolves striker Hwang Hee-chan have both scored at least 10 Premier League goals this season, while Paris St-Germain’s Lee Kang-in is regarded as one of Asia’s most creative and skilful players.
Despite their attacking firepower, they did not have a single shot on target against an unheralded but dominant Jordan side.
After the match, Klinsmann was asked if he was going to resign.
“I am not planning to do anything,” he replied. “I plan to analyse this tournament, go back to Korea and obviously talk with the federation about what was good and what was not so good in the tournament.”
Chaotic ride ends in low-key exit
One part of that discussion will presumably last longer than the other, as there were few positives for Klinsmann’s side who only won one match in normal time during the tournament.
South Korea’s opening 3-1 win over Bahrain was followed by group-stage draws with Jordan and Malaysia, who are ranked 130th in the world.
In the second round, they were 90 seconds from elimination before equalising against Saudi Arabia in the 99th minute and then winning a penalty shootout.
In the quarter-final they levelled against Australia in the 96th minute before Son fired them through with a superb extra-time free-kick.
Such “zombie football” – as it was labelled by media in South Korea – provided drama but not much else.
“The team played with no specific tactics,” said MBC Television commentator Seo Hyung-wook. “It all depended on individuals and not the team and there was just one win in six matches within 90 minutes.”
There were concerns about Klinsmann when he was appointed, particularly as he had, apart from an ill-fated 10-week spell with Hertha Berlin, not coached since leaving the United States national team in 2016. Such worries were heightened by the relative lack of time spent in South Korea.
In his first six months in the job, a Seoul newspaper calculated the German had spent just 67 days in the country, in contrast to past foreign coaches who had all been based in the capital city.
Some news conferences were conducted via video link from his California home, with Klinsmann explaining this was the job of a modern international coach.
“He looks like a part-timer, staying out of Korea and watching very few matches in which Korean players played,” said Seo. “He just travels around the world to meet players and coaches. I don’t think he has any plan to develop Korean football.”
Fears Son may quit international duty
Klinsmann’s contract runs until the end of the 2026 World Cup and qualification in Asia, which South Korea started in November, resumes next month.
But as well as the future of the coach, there are also concerns for captain Son.
“Fans are devastated and disappointed and they are worrying the coach will not resign but that Son will quit the national team,” Seo said.
After the game, Son, who struggled to make any impact against Jordan, and whose three goals in the tournament came from two penalties and a free-kick, hinted he may consider his international future.
Some see his comments as an indirect attempt to show his dissatisfaction with the team’s direction, while others feel it came from raw emotion.
The Spurs skipper, 31, was devastated after the final whistle, holding back tears while apologising to fans.
Jordan’s ’emotional’ journey continues
There is only one Europe-based player in the Jordan squad who qualified for their first Asian Cup final – and Mousa Al-Tamari was already his team’s star, partly thanks to the fact he plays for Montpellier in France.
Some have tried to label the winger the ‘Jordanian Lionel Messi’ or compared him to Mohamed Salah but the 26-year-old shrugged off such suggestions – just like he avoided South Korea’s challenges as he scored a delightful second goal.
“It means everything to me to be in the final and I hope we can do it,” said Al-Tamari. “It’s also good because it will make everyone speak about my country in France and this is very emotional for me.”
There is already talk of European interest in Yazan Al-Naimat who scored the opener in the semi-final. The team’s Moroccan coach Hussein Ammouta hopes there will soon be four or five Jordanians active in Europe’s top leagues in the near future.
That may well happen, especially if they beat Qatar or Iran in Saturday’s final. It would no longer be a surprise and the belief is there.
“We must defend this shirt with everything we’ve got,” said Ammouta. “We are growing more ambitious by the hour.”
By contrast, South Korea’s ambitions now turn to 2026 – but it remains to be seen whether Klinsmann or Son are in Seoul for March’s qualifier against Thailand.