9 consecutive World Cups. For all the trials and tribulations Korean national team fans, managers and players endure, the one thing we all have going for us is that stat – 9 consecutive World Cup appearances. A streak matched only by few powerhouse nations, that has stood the test of time and that speaks to the success of Korean footballers over a sustained period.
In this series, we’ll dissect every single World Cup that the South Korean national team has attended. Tactical variations, storylines, success stories and brutal defeats. This is a series that doesn’t just honor that crazy run in 2002 that has left an imprint on Korean society today – rather, it pays homage to the trailblazers, remembers the quiet legends and looks back curiously at World Cups of chaos and calamity.
However, this first post precedes those 9 consecutive World Cups. There’s one remarkable story that never gets included whenever we discuss that run. Let’s cast our minds back to the very first time the Korean Republic graced a football pitch at the greatest sporting spectacle: 1954.
The Birth of Football in Korea
There are differing accounts on how football first came to South Korea. The most popular story draws the introduction of the beautiful game on the Korean peninsula back to 1882, when a British warship, the HMS Flying Fish, was in port at modern-day Incheon and awaiting clearance to land. Impatient British sailors chose to kick around a football to pass the time, but incommoded by the narrow confines of the dock, they allegedly secretly sneaked off-board to for a kickaround on Korean soil. Chased away by angry Joseon Kingdom soldiers, the British were forced to abandon their two leather footballs, which later were taken by schoolchildren. Though the KFA and the Royal Navy agree on this account of events, historians today apparently struggle to find documented proof that there even was an HMS Flying Fish docked near Incheon in 1882. The English version of the first privately-owned Korean newspaper, Tongnip Sinmun, suggests instead that the birthplace of hanguk chukgu is Seoul, where either a reverend-cum-cricketer or British Guard Sergeant introduced the game at the Seoul Royal English Academy in late 1896.
The boys go at it [playing soccer] with such vim and earnestness that they have won the praise and admiration of their instructor. It was a pleasure to see them in their natty uniforms, with their faces flushed, chasing after the leather sphere with such agility and in such a whole-souled manner, appearing as if their lives depended on the game. -Tongnip Sinmun
Football concretely set roots in 1904, when the Seoul Foreign Language School made it a school subject – likely under the influence of a football-passionate Briton. The next year, the first ever formal football match held on Korean soil was organized between the Korean Athletic Club and the Hwangseong Christian Youth Association in Dongdaemun, Seoul. However, it would only be in 1921, when the All-Joseon Soccer Tournament was established, that internationally accepted rules were used.
The 20s and 30s saw football develop mightily in Korea, decades after it was first introduced. The simplicity of the sport – necessitating just a leather ball and something to mark the goals – rendered the sport an easy distraction from poverty and Japanese occupation. At least, that’s what the KFA claims in their History of Korean Football page on their website:
During Japanese occupation, soccer was the only cooler of the heartache of the Korean people. It planted the seeds of independence.
-the Korean Football Association
Though that first All-Joseon Soccer Tournament ended with no victor but instead a massive brawl, Korea was giving itself the tools to have some skin in the international game. The Joseon Football Association was created in 1933, while matches between all-star teams representing the cities of Kyungsung (Seoul) and Pyongyang saw occupied Korea’s two capital cities go into a standstill as stores closed, fans clashed and passions flared. A Korean club even won the Japanese Emperor’s Cup, and Koreans were made to play for Japan at the Olympic Games. However, club football in Korea was temporarily driven underground in 1940 after the abolition of the All-Joseon Tournament by the Japanese Governor-General.
The end of the Second World War in 1945 brought about the end of Japanese occupation… and the division of Korea. The last Kyung-Pyong rivalry match was held in 1946, and the Korean Football Association – which had jurisdiction on the southern side of the border – joined FIFA, allowing for the creation of a recognized international team. The South Korean national team played their very first game in the British colony of Hong Kong on July 6th, 1948, winning 5-1, qualifying them for the London Summer Olympics the following month. There, they surprised Mexico 5-3 before being knocked out by eventual gold medallists Sweden in a 12-0 loss at Selhurst Park. Still, Korean football made itself heard.
Any further development, however, was stayed after the Korean War broke out in 1950. The clubs that hadn’t folded after Japanese oppression a decade earlier now had little choice but to close up shop for a greater, albeit rougher, goal – the bloody moors of war. The national team, which had been busily touring other Asian nations like Singapore and Macau, played no games between 1950-1953. But the game was not forgotten. Far from it. When the South Korean national team would assemble again in 1954, at the end of the civil war, a colossal challenge awaited the new Republic’s XI – qualifying for their first ever World Cup. Standing in their way was an indomitable foe – an Asian powerhouse that had been shamed in geopolitical terms but never in sport – Japan.
Qualifying for the 1954 World Cup
The task of qualifying for the 1954 World Cup wasn’t just a battle on the pitch – it was a logistical nightmare. The bruised and battered Korean economy was just trying to find its feet, and the financial system would struggle to obtain foreign currency. Japan was considered huge favorites, and the prospect of spending a huge sum to send soccer players across the East Sea with little chance of victory didn’t please the Korean government. Furthermore, because FIFA rules stipulated that the tie had to be played home-and-away, the Korean government was expected to extend an invitation to the Japanese side, just a decade after colonial rule came to an end. Without the support of President Syngman Rhee – who himself had been captured and tortured by Japanese authorities – it seemed improbable that Korea would take part in the tie.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for Korean manager Lee Yoo-seong, this part of Korean footballing history likely never would have occurred. The KFA actively courted the political authorities to come to a solution and, in a meeting with President Rhee several months before the match, the manager delivered this famous quote, often misattributed to President Rhee himself:
“We will beat Japan. If we do not, we will all throw ourselves into the East Sea.”
The arrangement was that the Koreans would travel to Japan, with both qualifying matches to be played in Tokyo. The winner of the tie on aggregate would head to the Switzerland World Cup. But it’s safe to say that these matches weren’t just about football. They were about national pride, rebuilding the morale of a war-ravaged population and delivering, through sport, a painful blow to the country that had sought to occupy and assimilate the Korean people.
The Japanese news outlet Asahi Sports said this about the Korean team in 1954, ahead of the March face-off between the two countries: “8 months again, South and North Korea were waging war. There was no place to play football, and no place even today to train in the ruins.” They later went on to comment that the Japanese side were overwhelming favorites.
But never had a rank underdog wanted a victory so ardently. On March 7th, 1954, the nation listened to a radio transmission by a Korean broadcaster – the first such broadcast from overseas – live from the Meiji Shrine Stadium in Tokyo. Though the Japanese took an early lead in the 18th minute, the Koreans rallied in an incredible comeback, putting 5 past a stunned crowd. The following day, Asahi Sports reported this to the Japanese public:
The World Cup Football Championship Qualification Match Game 1 saw Japan play Korea at the Shrine Stadium. There was heavy snow and the ground condition was the worst. Japan were unable to hit passes and Korea’s persistent pressure from start to finish forced Japan to defend against sharp Korean strikers. South Korea had better than expected fitness and ball control won 5-1.
Japan 1:5 Korea | Tokyo, Japan
Japan: Naganuma 16′
Korea: Chung Nam-sik 22′, Choi Kwang-suk 34′, Sung Nak-woon 65′, Choi Chung-min 82′, 85′
Needing only to maintain their 4 goal advantage in the final game a week later, Korea seemed set for the World Cup. In inclement weather – this time, rain – Korea played an aggressive, physical game, out-fouling and out-working Japan. Perhaps it is indicative of the British flavor with which Korean football had first been initiated to. Fast wingers, physical defenders and the popular W-W formation – 5 attackers in a W shape, 3 half-backs and 2 centre-backs in an M shape – were Korea’s go-to strengths. Both withdrawn forwards were adept at finding space, and Choi Chung-min, the Pyongyang-born captain of the South Korean side, earned the nickname “Asian Golden Bridge” for his link-up play combined with attacking prowess.
Japan, on the other hand, had expected to play a short passing game. But Kutsuda, who played for the Samurai Blue in the second leg, admitted that “it was impossible to pass in that bad weather, which was to our disadvantage. Korea fouled a lot, but they weren’t malicious.” (Instead, it would be a Korean player, Kim Ji-sung, who broke his teeth after a crunching Japanese challenge.) And ultimately the margin was too great to overcome, and the final score was a 2-2 draw. The South Koreans returned home as heroes, welcomed upon their arrival by the South Korean president himself. For the first time, the World Cup would have Korea among its competitors.
Japan 2:2 Korea | Tokyo, Japan
Japan: Iwatani 17′, 61′
Korea: Chung Nam-sik 20′, Choi Kwang-suk 43′
Learning Experience: Switzerland 1954
Getting to Switzerland, however, caused again its set of difficulties. With no direct flight from Seoul to Switzerland existing, the Korean national team had to turn to the US Air Force for help. Ultimately, players and staff left in two flights. The first flight, an American military plane based in Japan, could only contain 11 players. That flight also reportedly had seats meant for tall American soldiers, not shorter Korean footballers. Unable to reach the ground, the Korean players were in great discomfort, compounded only by the fact that the journey took a whole 48 hours, with the plane apparently having to stop and refuel in Manila, Hanoi, Calcutta, Karachi, Syria and then Italy. The second flight arrived mere hours before their opening match, leaving a jet-lagged coaching staff and other half of the players. Moreover, the team somehow had to resort to sewing white cloth found overnight in Zurich on the back of their red kits to display player numbers. Simply put, it was a shambles.
These peculiar circumstances did nothing to help the Koreans’ colossal mission. If beating Japan was an upset, squaring off against Puskas’ Hungary and the “Mighty Magyars” – pre-tournament favorites to win it all – was far too tall an order. It was, simply put, an embarrassing domination. The Korean side composed of players mostly from “Counterintelligence Corps FC” and “Army Provost Marshal Headquarters FC” – the 1954 National Football Championship winners and runners-up – were no match for the Hungarians who, despite being “amateurs”, mostly hailed from Budapest Honved, then the football team of the communist Hungarian army. The Korean players’ condition was atrocious, with some players reportedly collapsing in exhaustion on the pitch in the second half. The defending Olympic champions Hungary showed no mercy: Captain Ferenc Puskas scored a brace, while Sandor Kocsis, the eventual tournament Golden Boot winner, netted 3. In his autobiography, Puskas wrote this about the Koreans:
It was more than inexplicable how the Korean team had even been admitted. They were very weak and basically had no training. -Puskas
Korea 0:9 Hungary | Zurich, Switzerland
Hungary: Puskas 12′, 89′, Lantos 18′, Kocsis 24′, 36′, 50′, Czibor 59′, Palotas 75′, 83′
3 days later, on June 20th, 1954, Korea played their second and final group game against Turkey. (1954 had a strange format – the groups were composed of two unseeded and two seeded teams. The unseeded teams didn’t play each other, and the seeded teams didn’t play each other in the group stage.) Little exists in terms of positive coverage about this match – Turkey clobbered Korea 7-0. It was no contest, and the Koreans returned home after just 4 days in Switzerland having conceded 16 goals and scored none. A predictable result, but a sobering one nonetheless.
Korea 0:7 Turkey | Geneva, Switzerland
Turkey: Suat 10′, 30′, Lefter 24′, Burhan 34′, 64′, 70′, Erol 76′
It would take 32 more years before this young Korean Republic would ever grace the pitches of the World Cup again. Their entry was mysteriously denied for Sweden 1958, before successive failures to qualify ensued. This generation of players, however, would get their crowning moment: indeed it is this generation that won the 1956 and 1960 Asian Cups, a trophy uncaptured by the Korean national team since.
In summary, it goes without saying that the greatness in the story of Korea’s 1954 World Cup campaign is not the World Cup itself, but rather the process of getting there. Amidst civil war, Japanese occupation and poverty, the Beautiful Game was suppressed and at times placed aside. But at the end of the day, it was not warfare or politics that won out – but football. It was the schoolchildren in Seoul, the shopkeepers closing their stores to cheer on their local club and the audacious promise of a determined coach to a skeptical President. And of course, the courage of gritty, amateur players on a snowy night in a Tokyo mudpool.
The 1954 World Cup is often forgotten when we talk about our national team, but let it not be this way. Instead, let’s remember it as the competition that proved Korean football had come a long, long way from that very first kickabout on the Incheon coastline over a century and a half ago.