S. Korean dream of football gold crushed under fatigue, defensive woes
Brazil comfortably beat South Korea 3-0 in the men's football semifinals at the London Olympics in Manchester Tuesday. Leandro grabbed a brace after Romulo opened the scoring. South Korea started out with some oomph but faded quickly, and Brazil overwhelmed the South Korean defense with offensive
creativity and nifty passing, the likes of which South Korea hadn't seen in earlier matches.
On paper, this wasn't going to be a close one. Brazil was led by big-club regulars such as Thiago Silva and Rafael and emerging domestic league stars including Neymar, Leandro and Oscar. The team had scored 12 goals in its first four matches before the semifinals, all victories. South Korea mustered just two goals in three group stage matches, with two of them ending in scoreless draws. It stunned host Britain in a penalty shootout in the quarters but went to Manchester with only one victory in regulation.
The Brazilian players had said they weren't going to take South Korean lightly because of their tireless work ethic and energy. Mano Menezes, Brazil's coach, branded South Korean style of playing as "very intense."
Once the game started, though, there was no energy or intensity to be found from the South Korean side. The team recorded one shot on goal. Save for a few early chances by forward Ji Dong-won, South Korea hardly tested Gabriel, Brazil's third-string goalkeeper.
Head coach Hong Myung-bo lamented his players' failure to capitalize on some early momentum.
"We started out well but couldn't convert some chances," he said. "Then we gave up easy goals, and that really took the wind out of our sails."
Romulo's first goal was, in sports parlance, a "softie." His rolling shot went in between the legs of goalkeeper Lee Bum-young, who was moving to his left as Romulo took the pass from Oscar.
Lee became the hero against Britain when, after replacing injured starter Jung Sung-ryong in the second half, he denied Daniel Sturridge. Lee was shakier on Tuesday and, in one play, he risked a injury himself by charging out of his box in a clearing attempt and colliding with a Brazilian player.
Losing Lee would have been devastating for a team only carrying two goalkeepers, with one, Jung, already wearing a sling for his shoulder injury.
Injuries weren't even the primary concerns for Hong, who boldly benched Arsenal forward Park Chu-young at the start against Brazil.
South Korea entered the Brazil match having played four matches in four different cities in 13 days. While all other teams have been playing a similar, crisscrossing schedule, the South Koreans appeared to have taken the brunt. Hong admitted Park wasn't close to 100 percent.
"Park Chu-young, along with others, was really fatigued," the coach said. "We needed someone in the forward position who could run and contribute both offensively and defensively."
Park was one of Hong's three "wild card" selections. The Olympic football tournament is open to players under 23 years old, but each nation is permitted to carry up to three players over the limit. Park, 27, was joined by goalkeeper Jung, 27, and defensive back Kim Chang-soo, 26.
Ironically, none of the three played any role in the semifinals. Park was virtually invisible as a second-half sub. Along with Jung, Kim was also injured against Britain and was unavailable against Brazil.
Hong had counted upon Kim in particular to provide stability on defense that had lost some key players before the Olympics. The coach refused to make the veterans' lack of contribution an excuse.
"Other players have to pick up the slack," he said. "It's all relative. They were fine the last time (against Britain) and they left a lot to be desired for this match."
Despite the deflating loss, South Korea's tournament is not over. It can still salvage a bronze medal with a win over Japan Friday.
Captain Koo Ja-cheol said he will try to help his teammates regroup and get fired up again in time for the Japanese match.
"We don't have to remind each other of the importance of any match against Japan," Koo said. "We've worked hard for the Olympics. Our goal was to reach the final, but having failed that, we still want to end on a winning note."