The October of 2015 was an incredibly hyped up month. Fans had long awaited the return of Lee Seung Woo and Jang Gyeol Hee to the national team, and by long awaited I mean one year – since the 2014 AFC U16 Championship. Due to the stupid FIFA ban (which, by the way, ends VERY soon and will be the subject of one of our future posts), we were never able to see any of the three Barcelona kids in action, so that one year felt like an eternity. Moreover, LSW and co had a point to prove after unfortunately (unfairly?) losing the AFC title to North Korea. Naturally, there was massive hype going into and during this event. So for our 7th post of our 15 for 2015 series, let’s recap what exactly happened before, during, and after this eventful tournament.
The months leading up to the 2015 showcase in Chile were actually incredibly depressing: the preparations for the tournament had gone completely awry and we did not look like a team at all. The Suwon U17 Tournament, delayed to August/September due to the MERS outbreak, saw Korea draw Nigeria and Croatia and lose to Brazil, who we had already known would be our eventual group opponents. See, drawing Nigeria (especially their incredibly talented U17 team, which has won the U17 World Cup a record 6 times) and Croatia sounds respectable but as anyone who saw the games live would tell you the actual game content was horrendous, in all areas of the pitch. Goalkeepers were shaky. The defense was the worst of the bunch, conceding late goals to Croatia even when leading 2-0, giving opponents too much space and turning over possession too easily. The midfielders were poor, even the highly rated duo of Kim Jung Min and Jang Jae Won. Offensive creativity was nonexistent and it was especially enraging how Lee Seung Woo was clearly not being used properly. He had a couple cool dribbles here and there but all too often he was too isolated, got the ball hoofed to him, or lost the ball aimlessly. Even Jang Gyeol Hee didn’t have the greatest tournament either. [resident Tavern writer Steve Price was able to attend some of the matches! His photos are posted at the end – thank you so much Steve!]
And to top off a very poor tournament, we even lost against the USA U17 team – twice – a mere two weeks before the kickoff. Everyone was generally displeased with how Choi Jin Cheol – a very inexperienced manager – was handling everything, so it’s fair to say that the expectations had been tempered massively before the tournament. Plus, Jang Gyeol Hee got injured, making everyone question if we could even make it out of the group stage in the first place.
Expectations were high after the AFC U16 Asian Cup, hit a massive low after the Suwon Cup, then soared to an even higher level right after the first game. We were worried we would get slaughtered by Brazil like in the Suwon Cup – but oh boy we were wrong. We saw a completely different team from the outset, and created some very early chances that we could’ve finished if it wasn’t for some rusty Lee Seung Woo finishing. Throughout the match we had the upper hand and eventually, 34 minutes into the second half, we managed to finally score – and it was an absolute beauty. The game ended 1-0 and the nation more or less went crazy.
Expectations were sky high after Brazil and were tempered by like 1% after the Guinea match. The match looked like it was going to end 0-0. We had but missed some good chances. We also conceded to Guinea good chances that they missed. But somehow, in stoppage time, the “2nd super sub” (I say second because our go to super sub was Lee Sang Heon) Oh Se Hun managed to score a DAMN good goal right after coming on for Lee Seung Woo:
Expectations sunk quite a bit after the England match, although some were willing to blame the performance on Choi Jin Cheol’s rotation. I don’t have too much to say about the England match. The most notable takeaway is that although our defense got destroyed, we still managed to keep the score 0-0. Which takes me to the most important takeaway from this tournament: our defense DOESN’T SUCK.
Led by captain and star CB Lee Sang Min, we conceded 0 goals throughout the entire group stage. Our defense had never been anywhere this good at the international level – I thought the 2011 U20 defense, led by Jang Hyun Soo, was really good. I thought the Song Ju Hoon and Yeon Jei Min combo in 2013 was really good too. But I think the 2015 edition was the best yet. It’s an interesting question – if original starting CB Choi Jae Young hadn’t been injured against Brazil, could the defense have been EVEN better? Who knows. We’re very lucky Lee Seung Mo stepped up very well to the CB role in Choi JY’s absence.
It was not just the CB’s who starred. It was pretty much every member of the starting 11, from the left back Park Myung Soo to the makeshift RB-turned-RW Yoon Jong Gyu, to the back-to-their-best Kim Jung Min and Jang Jae Won, to the entire attacking four. Well, Lee Seung Woo honestly didn’t contribute as much as we had imagined he would, but he was still GOOD. Not at his best and showed rust, but it was obvious he was a special player different from everyone else. After the tournament’s conclusion, I thought Lee Sang Min (#4), Kim Jung Min (the 15 year old wearing #17), and Park Myung Soo (#2) were the most impressive.
After a very successful group stage – that featured 1) our first win against Brazil in a world tournament 2) our first time topping the group at a world tournament 3) our first time not conceding a goal – we were pretty confident going into the RO16 Belgium match. Belgium had made it to the knockout stage as the 3rd placed team in their group, and their defense looked poor for much of their tournament. But everything went wrong.
For more details, I wrote a piece on this in shock/rage. Admittedly, my outlook hasn’t changed much since then – although my initial anger has subsided, to this day the Belgium match makes me disappointed. It is still disappointing that we fell flat on our face due to some silly mistakes against a team we definitely could have beaten on a different day. It certainly just wasn’t our day, and Lee Seung Woo’s PK miss cemented that notion, but we all know the game could have gone in a different direction had we scored first. In addition, the fact that we had lost to Belgium this time around in a very similar fashion to the 2014 FIFA WC Belgium loss made this one even worse – why is it that we just can’t score against a 10 man Belgium?
However, as Roy mentioned, in the end, the players put up a valiant effort, showcasing incredible stamina and (for the most part), solid defending, something we have only recently begun to see on KNT youth teams. Our U17 boys played like men this past October, and ultimately, it was quite an exciting tournament for us Korea fans, even though it ended in heavy disappointment. So thank you, Choi Jin Cheol and co. We hope you learned many things from this tournament, and come back stronger for the U20 edition coming up soon.
(A second message to Choi Jin Cheol – I know it’s almost certain Jeonbuk will win the K League but please put up a fight with Pohang – take advantage of the amazing youth teams there and build a team that can challenge Jeonbuk in the near future please!)