(ATTN: CHANGES headline, dateline, lead; UPDATES throughout with latest comments)
By Yoo Jee-ho
INCHEON, June 14 (Yonhap) -- South Korean football's technical director on Wednesday hinted at firing beleaguered men's head coach Uli Stielike this week in light of the team's shocking loss to Qatar.
Lee Yong-soo, head of the technical committee at the Korea Football Association (KFA), will preside over a meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday at the National Football Center in Paju, just north of Seoul. It will come after 43rd-ranked South Korea dropped to No. 88 after losing to Qatar 3-2 in Doha in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup late Tuesday (local time).
Though the committee has set up the meeting ostensibly to go over the team's latest match, Stielike's immediate future will likely dominate the agenda. The German-born coach has been in hot water for months as the team has continued to falter.
Following South Korea's third loss of the qualifying campaign, Lee said it was time for the team to take a step in a new direction.
"Personally, I think it's time for a change," Lee told reporters at Incheon International Airport, after arriving from Qatar with the rest of the team. "We'll have to make a decision that will help the national team down the road."
Lee said he and Stielike have talked about changes that need to be made to help improve the national team's performance from top to bottom.
Moments before Lee's interview, Stielike offered to take responsibility for the recent results, but fell short of offering an immediate resignation.
"I haven't really thought about that," Stielike said when asked if he was willing to step down. "I'll just accept whatever decision the technical committee reaches tomorrow."
In Group A of the ongoing qualifying round, South Korea are still in second place, the last automatic qualifying spot, with 13 points from four wins, a draw and three losses. But they're only one point ahead of Uzbekistan with two matches remaining.
The top two teams from each of the two groups will advance directly to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two third-place teams must go through playoffs for their final chance.
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.
Earlier Wednesday, a high-ranking official with the KFA acknowledged that Stielike forced its hands with yet another subpar match.
"We're just holding on to second place, and the general feeling around the KFA is that even if we do qualify for the World Cup, we won't be so competitive if we play the way we have," the official said.
Stielike, who took over the team in September 2014, is the longest-tenured head coach in the men's national team history. He has a record of 27 wins, four draws and seven losses.
Stielike guided the country to a runner-up finish at the 2015 Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup. South Korea had a perfect record in the second round of the World Cup qualification from June 2015 to March 2016, reeling off eight wins while scoring 27 goals and giving up none.
In 2015, South Korea lost just once while picking up 16 wins and three draws and giving up just three goals all year.
During that run of success, Stielike was hailed by fans as "God-tielike," but the same fans that so revered him have turned their backs on him on some lethargic efforts of late.
The call for Stielike's head further intensified after South Korea fell to China 1-0 on the road and eked out a 1-0 win over Syria at home in March.
The KFA gave Stielike a vote of confidence in April, but it likely won't take the same route this week.
South Korean media have already rolled out possible names for the next national team boss, with most of them pointing to locals, as there isn't enough time to search for and hire a foreign coach.
Huh Jung-moo, who previously led South Korea to the round of 16 at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, is emerging as the favorite as he is familiar with the current coaching staff. The 62-year-old worked with chief assistant coach Jung Hae-sung at the 2010 World Cup, while Seol Ki-hyeon, an assistant on the current national team, played for Huh at the tournament.
But Huh, now serving as the deputy commissioner of the South Korean pro football league, hasn't coached a team since April 2012.
Shin Tae-yong, who recently managed South Korea at the U-20 World Cup at home, where they suffered a round of 16 exit, is also being touted as an ideal candidate. The 46-year-old tactician, who also coached South Korea at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, was assistant to Stielike before he was appointed head coach for the U-20 team.
Choi Yong-soo, who was recently sacked by the Chinese side Jiangsu, has also been mentioned for his leadership that he showed with FC Seoul in the past. Before moving to Jiangsu, he led Seoul to the K League Classic championship, FA Cup title and a runner-up finish at the AFC Champions League. The 45-year-old, however, has no experience in coaching the national team.
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