When German Uli Stielike took over as South Korea national team coach in September 2014, the first item on his agenda was restoring his side’s confidence.
His new charges had been rattled by their bitter group-stage exit from the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil just a few months earlier.
A 1-1 draw with Russia followed by 4-2 and 1-0 defeats to Algeria and Belgium respectively consigned Asia’s most successful FIFA World Cup team to last place in Group H and an early flight home.
Eighteen months later, the Taeguk Warriors are back to their impressive best.
Having made a surprise run to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup final only to lose to Australia in extra time, Stielike’s team are once again brimming with self-belief on the road to Russia 2018.
FIFA.com caught up with the 61-year-old for an exclusive interview shortly before the draw for the third round of Asian qualification in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 12 April.
South Korea swept into the third round of FIFA World Cup qualification with eight wins from eight matches, scoring 27 goals along the way while conceding none. Are you surprised by your own strength?
Uli Stielike: We didn’t expect things to turn out as they have. For example, we hadn’t won in Lebanon for over 20 years, then went there and beat them 3-0.
Kuwait have traditionally been another bogey team for us.
Although we expected to be among the front-runners, we certainly didn’t think things would go quite so smoothly.
Will South Korea book their place at the FIFA World Cup?
We played exceptionally well in 2015, so we’re full of confidence and heading into the next group stage with our heads held high.
Our recent performances certainly suggest that qualification is what I should be demanding from our players. I’m very optimistic that we’ll make it to Russia.
You have now been South Korea coach for almost eighteen months. What is your verdict when you look back over that time?
Completely positive. I feel very happy not just with our results but everything to do with my work as a coach.
The feedback from the players has also been very positive.
It feels like the players and coaching staff work well together, even though everything needs to go through an interpreter. It’s just an absolute pleasure.
Your team are EAFF East Asian Cup champions and finished as runners-up at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup – have you achieved all your goals?
The only low point was losing the Asian Cup final to Australia in extra-time, but there aren’t many negative things you can say about that performance.
To come to that tournament on the back of a poor World Cup without any major ambitions and end up in the final was a surprise. 2015 was a real standout year.
We played exceptionally well in 2015, so we’re full of confidence. I’m very optimistic that we’ll make it to Russia.
Uli Stielike on Korea Republic’s chance in Round 3 of Russia 2018 qualifying
Where do you think South Korea stands in Asian football?
We’ve clearly demonstrated that we’re up there at the top with Japan and can be mentioned in the same breath as them.
Almost all of the Japanese players also ply their trade abroad, and that benefits national teams, particularly when you think of the pressure that comes with playing in large stadiums.
That’s something our homegrown players really aren’t used to.
Over the past year we’ve used 45 players due to the tournaments we’ve competed in, as well as the fact that we couldn’t use any European-based players in the East Asian Cup.
That experience has given us a good overview of our squad. Our trial period is over.
We’ve also got the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament coming up, where one or two others can and will no doubt stake their claims.
How important is Korea Republic’s participation in Rio 2016?
It’s extremely important and something we worked extremely hard to achieve. For example, we sent players who were already part of our set-up.
I followed the matches as far as I could and was there for the qualification tournament in Qatar.
The players are all in their early 20s and are therefore at an age that makes them potentially very interesting for the senior side.
Why have the national team not yet achieved much at youth level? What is missing?
When it comes to youth football, we’re not yet as physically strong as our South American and African counterparts, to be honest.
That makes it difficult to be among the best in the world.
Are there any ideas of how to improve this situation?
We’re trying to use the national team’s attractive playing style to spark people’s interest in football, but we still have a huge amount of work to do.
The things the lads put up with just because they want to be here are incredible. They do it because they identify so strongly with their country and their national team.
Uli Stielike on the commitment of his players travelling half way around the world
Your players are scattered across the globe, in countries as diverse as Germany, England, China PR, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. How difficult is it to keep them all on your radar?
It does mean quite a lot of travelling, sometimes with 12-hour flights across multiple time zones, but that’s the fantastic thing about our lads.
Whenever they meet up with the national team, they’re happy to do it.
They feel very much at home and enjoy getting together with each other. It’s like a family reunion.
We never get any flimsy excuses. The things the lads put up with just because they want to be here are incredible.
They do it because they identify so strongly with their country and their national team.
How tough is it to implement a consistent playing style – or are you unable to do that in such a short time?
We generally only have one or two training sessions together, so that makes it almost impossible to implement anything.
We focus very strongly on video work and recovery, as the players go through a lot of stress to travel to us.
We can only train properly ahead of major tournaments, when we can bring the players together for two or three weeks.
How would you describe your playing philosophy?
I tend to take my cue from the players we have rather than trying to follow a fixed model.
We’ve often played in a 4-2-3-1 formation but have occasionally gone 4-1-4-1 instead. We hardly had any strikers in the past, but luckily that has now changed.
Nevertheless, I always prefer to see what the players can offer and adapt to the circumstances.
For me it’s important that the players feel comfortable in their respective roles or positions on the pitch.
You have coached teams across the world. Where does South Korea rank amongst the places you have worked?
It has made a bigger impact on me and got under my skin more than anywhere else. It’s a team without any really big stars and full of players who are still developing.
Many of them play in the K-League and want to make the leap to an overseas club, so the national team acts as a springboard for them.
How big is the country’s interest in football overall?
We can’t complain when it comes to the national team, where we have the support of the fans.
But when it comes to the K-League, we’re a long way behind compared to the Japanese or Chinese leagues.
You’ve worked all over the world. Have you had any offers from Germany?
My current contract runs until 2018, by which point I’ll be 64. I’ve always said that I don’t want to be sitting on the bench once I reach 70.
While I haven’t thought beyond 2018, I don’t see myself coaching in Europe again.