Taeguk Warriors start strong but quickly stumble

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Taeguk Warriors start strong but quickly stumble


From left: Son Heung-min, Park Joo-ho and Suk Hyun-jun celebrate after Park scored Korea’s first goal during a friendly match against Panama at Cheonan Stadium in Cheonan, South Chungcheong, on Tuesday. [YONHAP]

World No. 55 Korea concluded their last friendly match at home against the 70th ranked Panama by drawing 2-2 at Cheonan Stadium in South Chungcheong on Tuesday.

Korea got off to a quick start with left back Park Joo-ho’s goal just four minutes into the game. The Taeguk Warriors doubled their lead in the 32nd minute when Hwang In-beom scored, assisted by Son Heung-min. Both Park and Hwang scored their debut goals for the national team. Park took home his 38th cap, while Hwang got his fourth.

Despite the early lead, Korea quickly lost focus and allowed Panama to level the score with Abdiel Arroyo knocking one home in the 44th minute and Rolando Blackburn following up in the 49th minute.

“We should have played more simply after our game started to lose pace,” head coach Paulo Bento was quoted as saying on Yonhap. “We should have made quick transitions. The opponents then came up with counterattacks and we had a tough game.”

With another draw, Korea extended their no-loss streak to four games under new head coach Bento, with two wins and two draws.

Although Bento still has November friendlies to prepare for, he has set his sights on a long-term goal to win the 2019 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in January.

“We don’t have much time left until the Asian Cup, so it’s important for us to establish the foundation of this team,” Bento said. “We still have matches left in November, so we’ll use those matches wisely.”

Bento will now call up the players for the November friendlies, with Korea heading to Brisbane, Australia, to play two friendlies against Australia and Uzbekistan.

Son will not be returning to the team in November, as he is heading back to the Premier League to fulfill his duties with his club, Tottenham Hotspur. When Son was added to the national team for the Asian Games, the Korea Football Association (KFA) and Hotspur agreed that the national team will not add Son to the roster for November. Due to this, Son concluded 2018 without a goal under Bento.

“I don’t have the right to decide whether I should play or not,” Son was quoted as saying. “I also want to score a goal, and I know it will be great if I could celebrate my goal in front of this huge crowd. But what’s more important is that my team scored goals.”

Since the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Son has not had a chance to rest. ESPN calculated that Son has traveled about 47,700 miles since the end of last season and played a total of 524 minutes in six matches throughout the Asian Games, over 16 days.

“I first need to recover and stay in shape with my club. In that way, I’ll be able to do well once I return to the national team,” Son said.

The friendly matches under Bento certainly pulled in the crowds - all four matches sold out.

A total of 25,556 fans visited Cheonan to cheer for the Taeguk Warriors, the first time in two years since a friendly against Canada on Nov. 11, 2016, that Cheonan Stadium has sold out.

“Tickets for the friendly against Panama were sold out the moment they went on sale on the internet,” said the KFA. “About 2000 tickets were canceled, but they also sold by 1 p.m.”

Interestingly, the young members of the national team have helped Korean football gain popularity among young female fans. Three hours prior to Korea’s friendly against Panama on Monday, a long line of young women were queued up in front of the stadium.

“The ratio of male to female in ticket sales was 7:3 in previous matches, but for the September friendlies, it was 4.5:5.5, meaning there were more women than men,” said Yi Chang-seop, head of KFA’s marketing team.

It was even crazier on Oct. 12, during Korea’s friendly against Uruguay at Seoul World Cup Stadium, as 64,174 available tickets sold out.

The increase in popularity of men’s football comes from Korea’s success at the 2018 Russia World Cup, where they defeated top-ranked Germany, and the gold at the 2018 Asian Games. Of the players, Son, Lee Seung-woo and Jo Hyeon-woo have been the most popular among the fans, and all three competed in both of the tournaments.

“This big support from fans makes us play a better game and be more responsible,” Lee was quoted as saying. “We really want to give back fans’ support by playing a good game.”

BY KIM JI-HAN, SONG JI-HOON [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]
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