Korea 2:1 Japan at the 2018 Asian Games final — goals from Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan ensure military exemption for Son Heung-min, Cho Hyun-woo, Hwang In-beom, Hwang Ui-jo and others. Michael Welch recaps.
Even though it feels like the Asian Games tournament just got started, it’s already over. Just a little over 2 weeks ago, the Korean men’s and women’s squads began their group stage matches and now they both have medals around their necks! Yesterday the Ladies won Bronze; today, our Taeguk Warriors did us proud and won Gold!
On a perfect Indonesian night at the Pakansari Stadium, we were all treated to a Haniljeon to remember in an Asian Games Gold Medal match that meant so much! We can talk about the military narrative a bit later, but first let’s recap what was a really exciting match in itself.
The Final Asian Games Line-up
No surprises here really other than the fact that Hwang In-beom returned to the #10 role with Lee Seung-woo moving to the bench. For Japan, they had brought their U21 squad as a trial run for what their 2020 Olympic squad could look like.
Right after kickoff, Sonny and the squad looked to attack and score early, missing a golden opportunity off a 4th minute 4 v 2 situation. Son Heung-min fed Hwang In-beom in the box but his low cross for Hwang Ui-jo to tap in was just a little out of reach. To be honest, that’s sort of how the whole match went for both sides, with the balance of attack certainly skewed towards the Taeguk Warriors. It was free-flowing, attacking football and both sides were taking shots and but just missing.
Lee Jin-hyun skied a shot just over the bar in the first half. Cho Yu-min skied a shot off a corner. Son Heung-min got free in the box and got fouled but no penalty given. Hwang Ui-jo is played through and stabbed a shot straight at the keeper. Throughout the first half, the Korean team were dominating possession and getting everything right but the final shot on goal. Japan didn’t threaten too much, elected to hoof long balls into space in the hopes to nab Korea on the transition. The only frightening moment came late in the half when left-back Kim Jin-ya got beaten on the wings and Jo Hyeon-woo was forced into a save at the near post. (Kim can be forgiven for his mistake; he’s played every single minute of this tournament).
The second half was much of the same. End to end football, a bit of sloppiness in the passing, but again Korea had more of the attacking chances. Hwang Hee-chan got on the end of a long ball and put in a nice low cross for Hwang Ui-jo but the angle was too tight and side netting was the best he could do. Sonny picked the pocket of a Japanese defender, drove into the box alone and his shot dribbled agonizingly wide. Flashbacks to the Olympic quarter-final defeat to Honduras returned to the fore; maybe it was just going to be one of those nights. Extra time came to the disenchantment of the Korean fans who felt perhaps that things were setting up for an agonizing penalty shootout.
But then extra time came and the kids stepped up to the stage. Sonny gets a fraction of space in the box in the 93rd minute from a nice pass by Kim Min-jae; he cuts inside and on rushes the substitute Lee Seung-woo to drive it into the back of the net. 1-0 Korea. The stadium erupted and if the Vietnam semi-final, in which Lee scored two goals, was Seung-woo’s first taste of international success, this was the moment he turned into a star. Though his celebration took some time to set up (balancing on advertisement boards in cleats may be a bad idea?) it created an iconic image that seemed set to be etched for immortality in Korean football lore.
That seemed even more likely 8 minutes later when Son Heung-min won a free kick near the corner flag. His delicious cross hung in the air forever, had the exact right amount of curve to take the ball away from the keeper, and it was just waiting for a Korean attacker to head it goalwards. Hwang Hee-chan pounced with a forceful header to the far post, rising over the Japanese defender and onto the top of the podium. He’s had a frustrating summer in the KNT kit, but this goal more than made amends. 2-0 Korea.
In the second extra time, Ueda had a bullet header goal to give Japan a lifeline, causing momentary panic. Kim Hak-bum promptly made his final two substitutions and apart from a worrying moment where Ueda had the ball in the box, only to be let down by a poor first touch, the Taeguk Warriors held on relatively sturdily (with a little time-wasting to help) to claim the gold medal. The scenes of jubilation were palpable. Captain Son broke into a smile, and then a yell, hugging every coach and every player in sight. The years of stress, concern, agony, frustration and pain in a Korean national team shirt for Son Heung-min was dealt a major blow in Russia, and maybe died in Indonesia. In that moment, he and his 19 exceptional teammates were the portrait of a team that released the remarkable stress of the quest for military exemption. All that was left to do was wave the Taegukgi flag around and let the medals went around their necks.
About Lee Seungwoo’s goal:
A major talking point of Lee’s goal was the fact that he stole the ball from Son to score. For those unfamiliar with Korean culture, this was sort of a groundbreaking moment. Lee Seung-woo has spoken on Radio Star (a popular Korean TV program) about the negatives of Korea’s strict social hierarchy of sunbae-hubae relationships. The thought of any 20-year-old Korean player stealing the ball from someone his senior is unimaginable (let alone someone of Son’s stature), yet Lee literally shouted at Son to move out of the way to finally break the deadlock. Lee may have run into controversy with his cocky arrogance, but it’s refreshing moments like these that make him 1) unique among the Korean footballers and 2) a real captain and leader in the making.
“When I dribbled past the defenders, Seung-woo yelled “Get out! Get out!”, so I quickly got out of the way. Seung-woo was in a much better shooting position, so thanks to him I was able to record an assist.”
– SHM after the game
What does Gold mean to this squad?
Well, now we can talk about the military narrative. All saw the memes and #SavingPrivateSon and media frenzy over this narrative and this Asian Games tournament of all tournaments is…. Well, it’s done. Son Heung-min won’t be going to the military other than for a month-long training session whenever he has some free time. He’ll continue his career with Spurs and hopefully continue to shine with Tottenham and in the KNT kit as well. It is, at long last, business as usual again.
For the rest of the squad? Well, I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to see the other 19 members of this squad get a chance to join Sonny and our other KPAs in Europe. Jo Hyeon-woo and Song Bum-keun may get to be our first GKs in Europe. Kim Min-jae certainly would like to test himself in Europe as well. Who knows? Maybe Kim Jin-ya, Kim Moon-hwan, and Cho Yu-min will find a way to join him.
Hwang In-beom will go straight back to his parent club, Daejeon Citizen FC, from Asan Mugunghwa (police military duty) and maybe he’ll find a suitor in Europe this winter. He certainly showed his skills as a dangerous attacking midfielder throughout this entire tournament. Hwang Ui-jo could see some interest after exploding for 9 goals throughout the tournament, a performance many are describing as the best from a player in a Korean national team shirt for some time.
The list could go on and on. Every single member of this squad, just like the 2014 Incheon Asian Games squad, has the opportunity to move forward in their careers. They’ve earned an incredible opportunity afforded to few Korean men to pursue their own careers at their will. Now it just remains to be seen what they will do with it.