(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 10-19, photos)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, April 7 (Yonhap) -- Paulo Bento, the Portugal-born head coach of the South Korean men's national football team, readily acknowledges coaching against his native country for the first time -- and doing so at the FIFA World Cup no less -- will be a "completely different" experience than doing so against other teams.
And Bento will try his best to maintain the same approach and treat it as if it were just another game.
South Korea will face Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana in Group H at the World Cup, which kicks off on Nov. 21 in Qatar. Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, six days after the draw, Bento said he would have preferred not to have been paired with Portugal.
"I think it's easy to understand reasons why. But we are going to approach the game against Portugal in the same way that we're going to approach the other ones," Bento told reporters at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul. "We're going to analyze the Portugal team in the same way that we analyze all of the opponents we play.
"Of course, if we talk about the mental aspect, it will be different. I have no doubts about that," Bento continued. "It's the first time that I am going to play against my country. I need to prepare myself to do that professionally."
South Korea, world No. 29, will open the proceedings against No. 13 Uruguay at 4 p.m. on Nov. 24, and they will then face No. 60 Ghana at 4 p.m. on Nov. 28. South Korea will close out the group stage against the eighth-ranked Portugal at 6 p.m. on Dec. 2. Qatar is six hours behind South Korea.
South Korea will play all of their group matches at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, just west of Doha. They are the only Group H country to have all three games at one venue.
Bento disagreed with the prevailing view among local pundits that South Korea ended up in a relatively easy group.
"I would say it's almost impossible to think that in the final phase of the World Cup, we can have an easy group," the coach said. "(These are) three good teams that we are going to face. To go through to the knockout stage, we must compete very, very well. And maybe that can't be enough because we will have strong opponents in our group."
Portugal will feature Cristiano Ronaldo, the five-time winner of Ballon d'Or awards as the world's best player. Even at the advanced age of 37, Ronaldo, back with Manchester United for another tour of duty, is among the leading scorers in the Premier League this season.
He will give his World Cup opponents fits, but Bento, who once coached Ronaldo on the Portugal national team, said he won't be preparing for just one player.
"Our concern in this moment cannot be (about) one player. It doesn't matter what kind of player we talk about," Bento said. "All the people know that he is one of the best players in the world, ever. But then we need to consider all the Portugal team, not just one player. Portugal have a number of players with too much quality in many, many aspects, playing in the most important leagues in Europe."
South Korea qualified for the World Cup by finishing in second place in their group, behind Iran, during the final phase. Out of 10 matches, South Korea only lost once, the finale against the United Arab Emirates on March 29, but Bento said the final qualification stage was "really good in general."
"There were some difficult moments that in my opinion allowed us to grow up as a team," Bento said, referring to South Korea's scoreless draw against Iraq to begin the final qualifying round and the loss to the UAE at the end. "At the same time, (those moments) allowed us as a technical staff to grow up as well and develop our ideas in the best possible way. The most important thing for me was that in those (tough) moments, we kept believing in our way of managing the team and in our way of playing."
Bento said he has been fortunate to see talented South Korean players all buy into his staff's managerial style.
"I think we have a fingerprint that is easy to identify. I think that's the best for us as a staff. We're happy because of that," he said. "What made us arrive here in this moment was the work the players made, their professionalism, their attitude and their commitment they showed in every moment we worked together."
With such a firm conviction in South Korea's style of play, and also a successful track record to boot, Bento said it "wouldn't make sense" to change the team's approach just for the World Cup, other than try to make improvements in certain areas.
But the coach was also mindful of the fact that Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana will demand different things from South Korea than what they had to deal with against Asian opponents in World Cup qualifiers.
"We're going to spend more time in the defensive organization than in the qualifier phase. I have no doubts about that," he said. "But we should be able to manage that and try to play as we like, respecting the opponents. At the same time, we know that they're going to create more problems for our team."
The only previous meeting between South Korea and Portugal came during the group stage at the 2002 World Cup. South Korea prevailed 1-0 to clinch a spot in the round of 16 for the first time, and Bento played in that match as a midfielder.
South Korea have split six matches against Ghana with three wins against three losses. The two countries have not faced each other since June 2014, when Ghana blanked South Korea 4-0.
South Korea have managed one win, one draw and six losses against Uruguay. And it was Uruguay that knocked off South Korea in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with a 2-1 victory.
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