Photo: Men's National Team celebrates its win over Portugal. Credit: Yonhap News.
The FIFA World Cup left South Korea thrilled. With 11 World Cup appearances, including the last ten World Cups in a row, South Korea has long been an Asian power, with a record bested only by Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Spain, the luminaries of global football. Yet South Korea had only made it out of the group stage twice, in 2002 and 2010, before the thriller that unfolded early morning KST on December 3.
South Korea entered as an underdog, going into the match with a draw against Uruguay and a loss against Ghana. It had to beat Portugal, the world’s ninth-ranked team led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, and needed Uruguay to beat Ghana in the final Group H games that began at the same time. What is more, Uruguay’s margin of victory over Ghana was greater by two than South Korea’s margin of victory over Portugal, setting up Uruguay to advance over South Korea, while a tie or a win by Ghana would have resulted in Ghana advancing instead.
In short, the Taegeuk Warriors 태극전사 had to beat one of the world’s top ten teams, while hoping that Uruguay would beat Ghana but not by too much. Somehow, the stars aligned. First, the South Korean side made their own luck: after giving up an alarmingly easy goal to Ricardo Horta just five minutes into the game, the Taegeuk Warriors equalized at the 27th minute with a Lee Kang-in 이강인 free kick that took an errant bounce off Ronaldo, which Kim Yeong-gwon 김영권 knocked in while falling down.
The game was approaching its end and South Korea’s hopes were dimming when team captain Son Heung-min 손흥민 uncorked a massive 70-meter counterattack dribble from in front of his goal. As the seven (!) Portuguese defenders scrambled to converge on Son, the Tottenham Hotspur star tapped forward the cleverest pass through the legs of the defenders to the onrushing Hwang Hee-chan 황희찬, who knocked the ball past the goalkeeper Diogo Costa. Bedlam ensued in South Korea, awake at 2 a.m. watching the game.
But Korea’s ticket to the Round of 16 was not yet punched, as it now had to watch the last ten minutes of the Uruguay-Ghana game. After a missed penalty kick by Ghana’s Andre Ayew and two goals by Uruguay’s Giorgian de Arrascaeta, Uruguay needed one more goal to advance. Ghana, nursing a grudge from 2010 when Uruguay eliminated them in the quarterfinals, determined to play the spoiler: “We have to defend for ourselves. If we don’t go, they don’t go,” said Ghana’s Daniel Amartey.
In the end, the Black Stars held on. South Korea would advance over Uruguay by multiple tiebreakers: both teams had one win, one draw, one loss, and a goal differential of zero. But South Korea scored four goals in three games, while Uruguay scored two. That was enough for the South Korean side to advance to face Brazil in the knockout stage. Although the Taegeuk Warriors ended their World Cup campaign on December 5 as Brazil thrashed them 4-1, the 2022 games will be added to the lores of South Korean men’s national team on the same level as their legendary semifinal run in 2002.