By Yoo Jee-ho
DOHA, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- Paulo Bento's record-long, four-year tenure with the South Korean men's national football team could have ended last Friday with the Portuguese tactician watching from the stands, not from the sidelines.
Instead, South Korean players made sure Bento would get to lead them in at least one more match at the FIFA World Cup. With Bento serving his suspension, South Korea defeated Portugal 2-1 to reach the round of 16. Bento had been shown a red card by referee Anthony Taylor in the aftermath of a 3-2 loss to Ghana on Nov. 28. Banned from communicating with his staff in any shape or form during the Portugal match, Bento watched from the VIP stands as South Korea punched their ticket to the knockouts.
With South Korea's 4-1 loss to Brazil in the round of 16 on Monday, Bento's four-year contract expired. The coach then announced he was not returning with South Korea, saying he will take some time off to think about his future.
"Fantastic group. Fantastic players with fantastic work ethic. Very good professionals. Very good human beings. It was a fantastic experience for me and for my staff," said Bento, who had made up his mind in September. "It was an experience for me that I will remember until the last days of my life."
South Korea had 35 wins, 13 draws and nine losses on Bento's watch.
Bento, 53, was named head coach in August 2018 and his first match took place on Sept. 7, a 2-0 win over Costa Rica in a friendly.
Over the ensuing four-plus years, Bento instilled a sense of stability and structure, two qualities that had been missing with the national teams at two previous World Cups.
While preparing for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, South Korea underwent coaching changes about a year prior to the tournament. Players scrambled to adjust to the new regimes, while new bench bosses also faced criticism for picking their own players who might not have deserved to be on the team on merit.
South Korea were eliminated in the group stage on both occasions, though, in 2018, a stunning 2-0 win over Germany in the final group match salvaged an otherwise disappointing campaign.
This year in Qatar, Bento led the team to the round of 16. Though he wasn't on the sidelines for the win that sent South Korea into the knockouts, the coaching staff and players had such a deep level of understanding of Bento's system that he could afford to be away for one match.
Bento has been either a man of conviction or a stubborn man, depending on one's perspective. For the majority of the time with South Korea, Bento has stuck to his guns when it comes to tactics and player usage. Along the way, he has, in his own words, "created an identity."
A stereotypical image of South Korean football, dating back to the mid-1980s, is that it's a pesky team of hard-working players, which is euphemism for a team built with players who will run all over the field with little else to show for it skill-wise.
Bento molded South Korea into a more patient and methodical team that creates offense from the back, either with short, quick passes to find holes through the defense or with occasional long balls into space behind it. The idea is to win the possession battle and to control the run of play.
Featuring the likes of Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in, there is no shortage of skill on this iteration of the team. In his early days, Bento also unearthed little-known players who have developed into viable pieces, most notably midfielder Hwang In-beom.
The goalless draw with Uruguay was a particularly important performance for South Korea. The early minutes perfectly encapsulated what Bento's football stands for, as South Korea controlled the majority of ball possession and played the same type of football they had always played without backing down against a team that many considered heavily favored against South Korea.
Bento has had a love-and-hate relationship with the media, for his tendency to be condescending and gruff at times while answering questions about individual players. Bento always stresses team over individual stars, and he recently attributed Korean media's and fans' interest in players to the country's football culture.
On the eve of the Portugal match, Bento took a moment to reflect on his time with South Korea. It was against South Korea at the 2002 World Cup that Bento played his final international match for Portugal. From afar, he watched his adopted country beat his native country.
"Obviously, during these four years, we had some issues that didn't allow us to have as fluid a process as we could have," Bento said. "But (the players) believed in the way I work, my style of play and my vision as a leader. Because of that, I feel good about the work we did.
"The results we achieved, the way we achieved them, the identity that we created, the style, I believe these are positive aspects," Bento added. "All of this had an influence on how I feel. No matter what happens tomorrow, I feel proud of having been in this journey."
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