No talk of loss as U-20 team arrives home heroes
Despite missing out on the title by losing to Ukraine 3-1 in the final, the U-20 team went further in the contest than any Korean men’s team ever, beating the 1983 U-20 team and the 2002 men’s squad, both of which finished fourth. The U-17 women’s team that took home the trophy at the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup remains the only Korean team to ever win a World Cup.
Although the team returned with a silver medal instead of the actual World Cup, it was still met by hordes of fans at Incheon International Airport when it arrived Monday morning.
“We didn’t think it would be like this back when we were in Poland,” said captain Hwang Tae-hyun. “As I’m experiencing this in Korea, I feel like we’ve actually made an historic achievement.”
When the U-20 team left for Poland, not many fans expected it to reach the round of 16, let alone the final. Facing a tough group containing six-time champion Argentina, Portugal and South Africa, Korea looked likely to make an early exit.
Hoping for a repeat of the 1983 U-20 squad’s success - where Korea advanced to the semifinals - the team reached the knockout stage of the competition after coming second in Group F with two wins and a loss.
Korea got off to a slow start, losing its first game to Portugal 1-0, but bounced back with a 1-0 win over South Africa in game two and a shocking 2-1 victory over tournament favorites Argentina in the final match of the group stage.
The young squad continued its momentum into the knockout stage, sending local rivals Japan home with a 1-0 win in the round of 16 before edging past a strong Senegal squad in a 3-3 game that Korea ultimately won on penalties.
A semifinal match against Ecuador saw the team record its fourth 1-0 victory to earn a spot in the final.
Although Korea finished just short of lifting the World Cup trophy, it still finished the tournament with an impressive record of four wins, a draw and two losses.
Korea’s runner-up finish was good enough for Lee Kang-in to win the Golden Ball Award at this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup. Lee is the first male Korean football player to ever win the Golden Ball Award.
Behind the success of the U-20 team, head coach Chung Jung-yong didn’t forget to thank the fans for their support throughout the tournament.
“Now that I’m back in Korea, I can actually feel it,” Chung said. “I want to thank the fans once again for their love and support toward the U-20 team. Our players played their hardest. I would appreciate it if you continue to support and cheer for them. Although we didn’t win, on a positive note, I think this is an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves to win next time.”
U-20 football tends not to pull in big crowds, but as Korea progressed further in the tournament, more and more Korean football fans turned out to watch the game.
For the final match, which started at 1 a.m. in Korea, fans gathered on the streets of Seoul and other cities in Korea to watch the game together.
After the final match, some of the players were criticized by fans, but Chung asked the critics to direct their ire at him, not the players.
“Fans’ criticism is understandable,” Chung said. “But if possible, I hope they do it to me. The players are still in the process of developing and are young.”
Throughout the tournament, the U-20 players were physically challenged, having to play seven matches over three weeks. Despite the rough schedule, the players and coaches all mentioned that they only had good memories of the tournament, rather than being tired or worn out.
“I don’t think it was only me,” said Lee. “We were all very happy.”
“Once the final was over, we were disappointed that we lost but we were more disappointed that our team’s last match ended,” Hwang said.
Before the members and the coaches of the U-20 team parted ways, the KFA held a welcoming ceremony for the young squad on Monday, celebrating its runner-up finish with fans in Seoul Plaza, central Seoul.
BY KANG YOO-RIM, KIM HEE-SEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]