The recent U20 World Cup tournament in Colombia showed the world a South Korean side willing to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world and emerge dignity attached.
Whenever a South Korean national side participates in a major tournament, at both senior and youth levels, the normal ‘best of all time’ tag is almost always immediately attached to the team by country’s media and fans. This has been the way for every tournament since Italia’90 and it was no different in the recent World Cup in South Africa as the Taeguk Warriors, led by an inspired Park Ji-Sung, reached the knock-out stages for the first time on foreign soil.
At youth level there has been very little success since the Asian giants reached the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1983 held in Mexico. Recent U-20 squads from the 2005, 2007 and 2009 youth tournaments have had players such as Park Chu-young (Monaco), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton), Ki Sung-yueng (Celtic) and Koo Ja-cheol (Wolfsburg) as well as a host of first team regulars for K-League clubs but have had limited competition success.
However, the Korean squad for the latest U-20 World Cup in Colombia never enjoyed the same level of attention from the media or the fans. Had players such as Ji Dong-won (Sunderland), Son Heung-min (Hamburg SV) and Nam Tae-hee (Valenciennes) been allowed by their respective clubs to participate the team probably would have been regarded just as highly as squads from previous tournaments. Eleven of the 21-man squad were university ‘students’ and while eight players were under contract with K-League clubs, only four of them have been playing first team football relatively regularly. The other two - Kim Sun-min and Lee Yong-jae - are playing second division football in Japan and France respectively.
Time differences meant even more indifference from the Korean public as the first match against Mali was scheduled to be played at 7am Korea Standard Time. Heavy rain delayed kick off for an hour at the Estadio Nemesio Camacho in Bogotá and the South Korean squad were further weakened as Chunnam Dragons’ Hwang Do-yeon broke his nose and was forced off in the first half, but still they managed to raise their game and saw off the Africans with an utterly convincing 2-0 win. Wingers Kim Kyung-jung (Korea University) and Baek Sung-dong (Yeonsei University) in particular impressed as they provided a nice blend of pace and technique, while captain and central defender Jang Hyun-soo (Yonsei University) kept the defence solid as well as doubling the lead with a cooly taken spot kick.
France were the next opponents and despite being thrashed 4-1 by hosts Colombia 3 days earlier, they were still undoubtedly the favourites against the Koreans. Despite conceding an early goal to France’s Gilles Sunu, a brave South Korea side fought hard and dominated the match, eventually and deservedly equalising with a sublime Kim Young-uk (Chunnam Dragons) freekick in the second half. Disappointingly a heavily deflected shot by Gueida Fofana 81 minutes into the match and then a Lacazette goal in the injury time gave France a rather fortunate 3-1 win. South Korea had already lost to France in the same competition 14 years ago in Malaysia, that French U-20 of 1997 truly star studded side as Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet bagged a brace each with Willy Sagnol, William Gallas and Mikaël Silvestre at the back. This time however South Korea had been far more competitive and slowly public expectation was being raised.
In the last group stage game the Koreans lost 1-0 to Colombia with Udinense-owned forward and one of the tournament’s star performers Luis Muriel scoring the only goal of the game. They were blasted for a lacklustre performance against the hosts but despite the criticism from local media and fans, they advanced to the Round of 16 after coming in second in the rankings within third placed teams.
In the knock-out stages South Korea drew a side that they have never beaten at any level, excluding penalties, Spain. There was no optimism whatsoever, the general consensus that they should ‘try to learn rather than to win’ the overall feeling pre-game. The Spanish media took a more cautious approach by showing their opponents a lot of respect but many felt the game was a formality.
Meanwhile an event that would be recorded as one of the biggest humiliations in the history of Korean football took place approximately 12 hours before the U-20’s kicked-off. The South Korean senior team took on bitter rivals Japan with several key players already omitted due to injuries but there was no doubt in any Korean’s mind that the Taeguk Warriors would easily see off the Samurai Blue. However, everyone who watched the game felt betrayed by Korean football as they were not only completely outplayed and lost 3-0, but the players seemingly did not even show any effort or desire on the pitch. After some of the biggest stars had shown a lack of hunger the almost unknown U-20s took on their Spanish counterparts, hardly anyone even remembering the youth game about to start as they reeled from the shock of such a humiliating defeat.
As the match kicked-off the usual tiki-taka of Spain was nowhere to be seen and they struggled against a very well organised South Korea. While staying compact at the back, Korea threatened with long range efforts from Kim Young-uk and Yoon Il-rok (Gyeongnam FC) and the neutral fans at the Estadio Palogrande, mostly from Colombia, slowly started cheering on the Koreans. After fine saves from Spain shot-stopper Fernando Pacheco and some poor finishing by both sides the match continued in extra-time. The Spanish improved and with the Koreans visibly tired and some of them suffering from cramps, there were late scares as Spain looked increasingly dangerous, hitting the cross bar and forcing a goal line clearance from South Korea captain Jang Hyun-soo.
But, somewhat momentously, after 120 minutes of football the scoreline was 0-0. Although Spain eventually won 7-6 on penalties it didn’t matter, the Korean players had already won over the fans and reporters who cared enough to witness the match with such a spirited performance. They were neither the ‘best of all time’ nor established stars but they proved their potential and showed the national pride that should come from representing your country. They proved what they needed to prove on the pitch and that is the only way to become true champions.