“It’s been a lonely journey for us to live as female soccer players in Korea…”
Jeon Gaeul’s words and the reaction from her teammates in a pre-tournament event reveals the raw emotion behind the Korean women’s national team. It abruptly reveals the incredible struggle and adversity the Taeguk Nangja’s have had to face.
They had to battle the KFA, who only allocated 700,000$ of their total budget – less than 7% of what the men’s team were receiving – towards the KWNT.
They had to battle the system, the Korean women’s football system where there are a mere 7 semi-pro teams that compose the WK-League.
They had to battle social pressure from those who disapproved or who did not believe in their way of life, in their passion.
Some had to even battle not being a man.
And yet, despite all these unwanted supplementary challenges, the Korean Women’s National Team did something incredible, and had their most successful World Cup ever.
And even pre-tournament, they had to battle another problem still – first choice striker Yeo Minji was out injured before the beginning of the US friendly and didn’t make the trip to Canada. But their morales were lifted with a 0-0 draw against the United States revealing an solid defensive organization that seemed to have stepped up at the right moment.
Unfortunately, that assessment wasn’t entirely accurate, though in hindsight it is unfair to judge against a strong team like Brazil to open the group stage. Despite early control and a penalty shout that was unfairly denied, the 25th minute was the first goal for Brazil. An underhit backpass from centreback Kim Doyeon was pounced on by Brazil’s flamboyant box-to-box midfielder Formiga, who slid it into Kim Jungmi for the 1-0 lead. The gameplan then unraveled, as much like China against Canada in the World Cup opener, the Asian squad had set up to defend and pounce on their few chances in an opportunistic fashion.
Ji Soyun admittedly had a quiet opening game, with the way the team set up not one that was really compatible with her vision and ability to control the game from an advanced position. A second errant JSY backpass to Cho Sohyun, who was covering for another centreback, forced the captain to take down Formiga once again. The penalty was converted and Brazil went ahead 2-0; game set match, an unsurprising defeat for Korea in their first match.
The next match, however, was supposed to be far more promising. The underdogs of the group, Costa Rica, were a team Korea had to get a result against to qualify for the second stage. But yet again, despite a bright start, Ji Soyun’s assets allowing the creation of two big chances within the first 17 minutes, horrific set piece defending allowed Costa Rica to take the lead against all the odds.
But then finally, Korea played some of their best football in response to that goal. The spark they needed – a penalty awarded to Yoo Younga despite what was clearly a dive from the Korean striker. Ji Soyun made no mistake and draw Korea level. Kang Yoomi and Kim Hyeri played a lovely one two a few minutes later, and a trademark deep cross to Jeon Gaeul was perfect, as was the finish. Korea seemed poised for a 2-1 triumph but a poor set piece let them down again and Costa Rica had a shocking 2-2 draw.
The final group stage game would be in Ottawa, where Park Eunseon made her first start of the tournament, and unsurprisingly, was the main attack route. Long ball after long ball went into her direction, but the Spaniards simply came out of the gate faster. Crisp passing, accurate vision, quick tempo and purpose in their play, they were, when at their best, simply too much to handle for the Koreans. Boquete sent the Spaniards in the lead and Korea, needing a win to advance, were on the edge from elimination.
Kang Yoomi showed off some of her crossing skill again, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. It was that crucial period at the beginning of the second half, where a goal could turn the match on its head and give Korea hope. Kang’s deep cross met the charging run of captain Cho Sohyun, who nodded home and sent the pro-Korean Landsdowne Park crowd into celebration. They needed just one more goal.
And the pressure piled on, and on, and on, but the goal was still proving to be elusive. That was, until the 81st minute. Kim Sooyun, subbed on at half time in the right back position, sent a deep cross to Yoo Younga. The cross was misjudged by the Spanish keeper and spiraled over her head and into the net directly. Hysteria. Delirium. Pandemonium. Korea was ahead, and as it stood, would qualify for the knockout stages.
But it ultimately came down to one final free kick. Hwang Boram was forced into a panicked challenge on the lip of the box and Spain had a final opportunity to dash Korean dreams. It was inches away from being a Costa Rica deja-vu – defeat at the death despite a resilient comeback – but the crossbar saved Korean dreams. Korea was through for the first time in their history.
And although Korea was soundly defeated by one of the pre-tournament favorites France 3-0 in the Round of 16, there was still a feel-good story out of all of it. If the Tuhon spirit – resilience and never-say-die – was not already epitomized by the Koreans in light of the victory against Spain, in spite of all the adversity they had to face to even qualify for the tournament – it was by Kim Jungmi. The Korean netminder received an elbow to the left cheekbone by Park Eunseon in the beginning of the first half, and a shoulder to the right cheekbone while defending a free kick at the cusp of halftime. But she carried on with the game, regrouped her team after going 2-0 and gave it all she had.
They could go home with their head held high. The Korean women’s national team had made history. Kang Yoomi, Jeon Gaeul and Cho Sohyun had shown their skill. They had shown the world their resilience, their fighting spirit, their ability to not give up until the very last minute was played. They had, most all, achieved progression to the elite 16 of Women’s football despite all the struggles they had to overcome. It was truly one giant step for women’s football.