By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL, June 7 (Reuters) - South Korean fans love to relive the glory days of 2002 when Guus Hiddink led them to the semi-finals on home soil. In Hong Myung-bo, they not only have a manager who played under the Dutch master, but one who cut his coaching teeth by his side.
Hong, South Korea's most capped player, took over from Choi Kang-hee after the much-maligned manager stepped down following an uninspiring 2014 qualifying campaign in which the Koreans made it through by the skin of their teeth.
Hong impressed as coach of Korea's Olympic team, winning the bronze medal at the London Games, and assisted Hiddink at Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala before the Dutchman resigned.
Hong's first few games in charge were difficult and the national team struggled to adapt to the new man's style and tactics.
But, like Hiddink, Hong has never been afraid to put the Koreans up against some of the world's top sides to gain a clear picture of where they stand.
In an interview with World Soccer magazine in April he said: "There should be no fear. In the remaining time we have left, we have to use the time wisely, and we have to help our young players believe in themselves.
"Koran football has shown over the years that it can achieve great things and that there is nothing to be scared of."
South Korea have played against Brazil, Croatia, Switzerland and Russia among others in the last two years and against those teams they have shown glimpses of their best under Hong.
In contrast, they have sometimes struggled against opponents they were expected to beat.
Searching for Korea's best formula, Hong got his tactics and personnel right in a 2-1 win over Switzerland late last year and his team showed they are becoming more confident under him with an impressive 2-0 victory over Greece in March.
While that win in Athens gave Korea a much-needed confidence boost, after friendly defeats to Mexico and the United States when fringe players were given their chance, it is clear Hong still has to address the team's defensive failings.
An elegant sweeper in his playing days, Hong seems unsure whether he has the right personnel for a fluid three-man backline with two rampaging wingbacks, or if a more rigid, flat back four is the way to go.
The most respected figure in Korean soccer after playing 136 times for his country, the 45-year-old Hong is idolised by the younger members of the squad and his authority is never questioned in the dressing room.
The KFA is likely to give Hong time to mould the national team over the next few years, providing the South Koreans give a decent account of themselves in Brazil where they will face Belgium, Algeria and Russia in Group H. (Editing by Pritha Sarkar and Mike Collett)