DOHA – South Korea will be playing in its 10th consecutive FIFA World Cup this month in Qatar, an impressive streak matched by a few others.
Not every tournament during this run has been memorable for South Korea, though.
Of course, there was the improbable run to the semifinals in 2002, when South Korea co-hosted the tournament with Japan.
But there was also the disappointing early exit from the group stage in 2014 in Brazil, where South Korea had one draw and two losses, including a 4-2 defeat to an Algerian team that the Taegeuk Warriors had earlier considered the one beatable team in their group.
Where will South Korea's performance at this year's World Cup fall?
Their pursuit of only its third trip to the knockout phase begins next Thursday against Uruguay, the first Group H match for both countries.
South Korea will then play Ghana on November 28 and Portugal on December 2.
Portugal, at No. 9, is the highest-ranked team in Group H, followed by Uruguay at No. 14, South Korea at No. 28, and Ghana at No. 61.
An optimist may say South Korea should have at least a fighting chance to make it out of Group H.
But none of the teams will be a pushover.
Portugal may not be in the same class as title favorites, such as Brazil, Argentina, or France, but it still features one of the all-time greats in Cristiano Ronaldo, and rising stars in Federico Valverde, Darwin Nuñez, and Rodrigo Bentancur.
Ghana is one of the lowest-ranked contestants in the entire tournament, a team that South Korea should be able to beat on paper.
But the Ghana team that went through the African qualifying won't be the same team in this tournament.
It selected foreign-born players of Ghanaian descent for the World Cup, such as Iñaki Williams and Tariq Lamptey, and looked impressive, beating 15th-ranked Switzerland 2-0 in a tune-up match Thursday.
South Korea's unprecedented level of coaching stability and continuity could be a double-edged sword.
Head coach Paulo Bento has been at the helm since the fall of 2018. He's the longest-serving national team head coach in South Korean football, and players have spoken openly about how the continuity of having the same bench boss for the entire four-year buildup from one World Cup to the next has laid a strong foundation for success in Qatar.
On the flip side, as steady as Bento has been, the coach has also been reluctant to switch things up strategically. He has rarely deviated from his buildup schemes, where South Korea tries to maintain a ball possession edge and take their sweet time mounting an attack from the back.
And Bento has kept his core group of players mostly intact, leaving little room for a shot-in-the-arm type of changes to keep usual suspects on their toes.
It remains to be seen if the buildup tactics, which worked to varying degrees of success against inferior teams during the Asian qualification, will also be effective against teams, such as Portugal and Uruguay, who will likely dominate ball possession against South Korea.
South Korea's fate will hinge on the health of their captain, Son Heung-min, who is in a race against time after undergoing surgery to repair fractures around his left eye.
Son suffered the injury on November 1 during a UEFA Champions League match and had the procedure three days later.
He has been training here with a carbon protective mask but was a limited participant for his first three days here.
FIFA approved Son's use of the mask, if the Tottenham Hotspur forward is medically cleared to play, but did so under one condition.
"For tournament matches, he will put on a mask without the No. 7 written on it," the Korea Football Association said.
Under FIFA regulations, facial protective gear must not have any number, name, or even emblem of the player's national team.
The mask must also be black or the same color as the player's kits. (Yonhap)
TOP GUY. South Korean captain Son Heung-min trains with a protective mask at the Al Egla training facility in Doha, Qatar on Thursday (Nov. 17, 2022). The Koreans’ fate in the FIFA World Cup that starts November 20 largely depends on Son’s condition. (Yonhap)