S. Korea coach defends benching of La Liga star as ‘tactical decision’

SEOUL– Toward the end of South Korea’s 1-0 victory over Cameroon in the teams’ World Cup tuneup match Tuesday night, some 59,000 fans at Seoul World Cup Stadium began chanting the name of a player who wasn’t even on the field.

When the injured forward Hwang Ui-jo was subbed out for midfielder Paik Seung-ho, fans started yelling, “Lee Kang-in! Lee Kang-in!” in hopes of seeing the RCD Mallorca playmaker in national team action for the first time since March 2021.

It wasn’t meant to be, as Bento had used up all his substitutions.

Lee’s status had been a hot-button issue among South Korean football fans for weeks. First, they were calling on Bento to select Lee and give him a look before the World Cup in November. They pointed to Lee’s early-season performance — he’s tied for the La Liga lead with three assists in six games — as the reason why the 21-year-old deserved to be back in the mix.

And once Bento called him up earlier this month, fans wanted to see Lee in action. Lee was glued to the bench last Friday against Costa Rica, which only gave Bento detractors more ammunition. Bento has been deflecting questions about Lee’s usage for the past couple of weeks, saying he would only make lineup choices based on tactical reasons, and nothing else.

The coach was at it again postmatch Tuesday.

“We decided to play with other players. During the game, we analyzed the game and what the team needed in different moments. We understood it was better to take different options,” Bento said. “(Benching Lee) was a technical and tactical decision.”

Asked if he’d heard fans’ chants, Bento said wryly, “I have two ears. It was impossible not to hear it. It was good to hear that because people like Kang-in.”

Lee wasn’t the only player from the 26-man roster not to see any action in the past two games.

“Sometimes, it’s not possible to play with all the players that we call up,” Bento said. “It’s not easy to do that. We need to analyze the game and what the team needs. In both games, it was not a good moment to make Kang-in play some minutes.”

Lee Kang-in, who wore a disappointed look immediately after the match, said he was appreciative of the fans’ support.

“Obviously, as a football player, I am disappointed that I didn’t get to play,” Lee said. “But I don’t make those decisions. I will return to my club and keep trying to play even better.”

Asked if the recent benching had given him extra fuel for the World Cup, Lee said, “I’ve always been motivated for the World Cup. Like I said, all I can do now is to rejoin the club and play as well as I can.”

Bento said his team enjoyed “a fair victory” based on their success in keeping Cameroon in check while making in-game adjustments.

“We used different tactical systems. The team showed capability to adapt themselves to this kind of changes and movements we needed,” he said. “In conclusion, it was a good training camp. Behavior and attitude from the players were fantastic as usual.”

Source: Yonhap News Agency