South Korea face Saudi Arabia in a friendly at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park on Tuesday, with Jurgen Klinsmann under severe pressure after a wretched start as coach.
The German legend was appointed only in February, but his South Korea side have failed to win in the five games since, losing twice and drawing thrice.
The latest disappointment was a drab 0-0 stalemate away at an equally off-colour Wales last week, after which skipper Son Heung-min came to the defence of the 59-year-old Klinsmann.
“I understand where fans come from, as someone who’s been on the national team for a long time. I am not saying the coach is always right, but I also don’t think fans are always right either,” the Tottenham Hotspur forward said in Cardiff.
“Many different players have been getting opportunities. In some ways, the coach is trying to identify new players, instead of trying to put up results right away. I am sure he knows what he’s doing.”
South Korea, ranked 28th in the world, reached the last 16 of the Qatar World Cup before being outclassed 4-1 by Brazil, after which coach Paulo Bento said he would not stay on.
The Korea Football Association launched a protracted search for his successor before settling on Klinsmann, a World Cup winner as a player but whose coaching career has never hit the same heights.
Many South Korean fans were underwhelmed by the appointment, and the performances since have only added to those misgivings.
Klinsmann, whose previous coaching job was a short stint with Hertha Berlin more than three years ago, started with a 2-2 home draw with Colombia, before home defeats by Uruguay and Peru.
Then came a 1-1 home draw with El Salvador, but the result and listless performance in the goal-less stalemate with Wales have piled the pressure on the former United States coach.
It does not help that the Koreans’ fierce rivals Japan are in fine form, beating four-time world champions Germany 4-1 on Saturday.
Despite boasting Asia’s finest attacker in the talisman Son, South Korea conjured up just one shot on target against the 35th-ranked Welsh. They have scored four times in five matches under Klinsmann, who was a prolific striker in his pomp.
However, it is what the former Germany skipper and coach is doing off the pitch that has equally angered fans.
Supporters and media accuse him of reneging on a pledge to move to the country, saying he spends more time at home in California than in South Korea.
Klinsmann’s media duties away from the Korean job have also been touted by critics as more evidence that he is not sufficiently committed to the job.
Choi Dong-ho, a commentator and director of the Centre for Sports Culture research group, said Klinsmann appeared “negligent”.
“Considering his limited familiarity with Korean players, he should at least be watching all K League games in person rather than being ‘briefed’ by other coaches while he stays abroad,” said Choi.
The German, however, sees things differently.
“The only way for me to improve this team and this programme is I come to Europe say hello and I talk to people all day long,” he said in an interview released by football YouTube channel Dalsu Live on Monday.
“When I come to Korea, in and out, in and out, that is the only way I can improve. If not, it’s better somebody else. No problem.”
Failure to beat Saudi Arabia, who are ranked 54th in the world, would leave Klinsmann clinging to his job after less than seven months in charge.
“Klinsmann’s seeming lack of urgency in light of poor performances hasn’t sat well with South Korean fans, many of whom have already begun calling for the German tactician’s head,” Yonhap news agency said on Monday.
Klinsmann insists that the team are in transition and his focus is on the Asian Cup in Qatar in January and February 2024.
“How prepared are they mentally for a big tournament? Can they deal with all the pressure, all the expectations and all those different elements?” Klinsmann said after the Wales draw.
“It’s a growing process. And I’m pleased overall with what the players showed, and we’ll keep growing game by game.”