Asian Games: Korea 1-2 Malaysia – Stunning defeat puts Son Heung-min’s military exemption dream in danger

The Asian Games are where Korean footballers’ exemption dreams come to die. In hindsight, it’s easy to take this narrative; nobody foresaw this result tonight. But you read that right – Korea 1, Malaysia 2.

The slip-up came in the Group Stages, so there’s mercy yet for the 20 Korean men fighting for a shot at military exemption, but another faux pas will see them hung, drawn and quartered, marched to the military like normal Korean men, and seen their dreams of the elusive military exemption vanish like their ambitions to move to Europe or lavish CSL and Middle Eastern paychecks.


— Kim Hak-bum sought to rotate the side that defeated Bahrain 6-0 less than 46 hours ago, making 5 changes to the starting line-up; Lee Si-young replacing Kim Moon-hwan at right wingback, three changes in the midfield with the introduction of Lee Jin-hyeon, Kim Gun-woong and Kim Jung-min at the expense of Hwang In-beom, Lee Seung-mo and Jang Yun-ho, while Na Sang-ho was rotated out for Hwang Hee-chan in the front line.

The match itself had a rather simple narrative: Malaysia capitalized on early chances, hit through the counter, and bunkered down (sometimes down, lying down on the pitch) to claw themselves to a win. It wasn’t a disgraceful victory, by no means – the Malaysians worked extremely hard, and after Singapore’s 1-0 win over Japan in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and Vietnam and Thailand’s recent success on both youth and senior levels, there’s verifiable proof across the board that South East Asian talent is on the rise.

In more specific detail, the first Malaysian goal arose from a comedy of errors. A bouncing ball that Song Bum-keun, the Korean goalkeeper, should have easily claimed in his box – but Hwang Hyun-soo, the left centre-back, decided to go for a clearance as well, clattering into his compatriot and spilling the ball to Rashid, the Malaysian striker, tapping home into a gaping net. Did Song not give a shout? Did Hwang ignore it? One can only speculate, but the result was the same. Malaysia had wind in their sails, and Korea had gifted them on a silver platter what they did not gift even once to any opponent in the 2014 Asian Games; a goal, and a lead.

The 45th minute saw Korea’s situation go from bad to worse. The non-rotated defense was caught flat-footed as the pacy Rashid dribbled right between their discombublated lines, muscling past Hwang Hyun-soo and toe-poked a ball meekly on goal. If Song wasn’t at fault for the first goal, he was brutally exposed on the second, his poor positioning allowing for what should have been a save-able effort to skip away off the far post and in. 2-0 Malaysia at half-time, and you could almost hear the clitter-clatter of the keyboards from Korean journalists in the stadium writing up their obituaries.

Kim Hak-bum made two substitutions in the second half as the noose began to tighten just a little on his personal national team managerial ambitions. First, it was Hwang In-beom, who had provided such zest and spark for Korea in midfield against Bahrain, ratcheting up three assists, and second, Son Heung-min, the man for whom most fans even bother watching this tournament. The “break glass in case of emergency” card had been played by Kim, who had no modification or invention or idea that didn’t include simply throwing on Korea’s best player and hoping for the best. And in truth, that’s exactly what happened. The stubborn 3-5-2 shape remained, and Korea continued to try and choke the ball down the throats of the Malaysians, who had packed 5 defenders along the mouth of their penalty box. Even though they elected to move wide sometimes and make use of their wingbacks, as the game wore on both Kim Jin-ya, and to a greater extent, Lee Si-young, were either unfindable or unable to make any play of impact. In that respect, electing to play a 3-5-2 system with emphasis on the wingbacks when it is clearly Korea’s weakest position now comes into the realm of reasonable debate.


No longer can the position of “it’s the Group Stages”, we’ll walk it, be used as an excuse. The fire alarm pulled by Kim Hak-bum didn’t have much effect, however. It was as if all the kids thought it was a drill, and not the real deal. The same clueless endeavours remained; sloppy passing, poor spacing, and inability to play through lines and make intricate plays. In the second half, Korea had a plethora of small quarter- or half-chances, but nothing clear-cut that required a show-stopper from the Malaysian net-minder, who wasn’t kept particularly busy. A glimmer of hope arose in the 90th minute, when Hwang Ui-jo – ironically the player who was maligned by fans as a waste of space before the Asian Games, and also the one non defensive player who started the Bahrain game (and thus operating on the worst fitness), urgently tapped home a good lobbed ball over the defense by Lee Jin-hyeon. But the second goal for the draw never came ; Son Heung-min had the best chance off of a free-kick, curled just wide, but Malaysian time-wasting and poor Korean passing saw any momentum ruptured. Full-time blew. It’s as simple as this; anyone out there claiming to believe this result was going to happen is not someone worth associating with, and anyone out there rejoicing in a “wake-up call” defeat is being facetious.

This may have been a wake-up call, but it came far too soon in the tournament for it not to presage more troubled times. And though we focus only on the micro level tonight, it’s not too far of a stretch to say that if things take another twist, the Indonesia 2018 Asian Games will be where this reputation of the over-arching smug superiority of Korean football over its Asian minnow peasants will come to die. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing in hindsight – Kim Hak-bum might learn something from not more or less saying that the Group Stages are a joke – but there’s far worse. The Indonesia 2018 Asian Games could well be where Son Heung-min’s career – the career of Korea’s prodigal son, the career of the best Korean footballer of our time – came to die.


About Tim Lee 321 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?


  1. This was so disappointing! I’m not sure why the manager decided to play so direct, but I really couldn’t understand why he didn’t change the tactics when the original plan was clearly not working. Also, it was frustrating to see players lose their composure and constantly make mistakes. I think the coaching staff and players really underestimated Malaysia and this tournament. Hopefully, this was the wake-up call that they needed.

    I also have a problem with the 3-5-2 for this tournament. Like you said, it relies heavily on wingbacks(KNT’s weakness). There’s a reason why most top teams in the world don’t use this formation because they don’t need an extra center back. They rather have an extra midfielder or forward.

  2. You guys at the Tavern have been building up this goalkeeper for awhile. Full disclosure, this was my first time watching him. All I can say is wow
    Not your fault for building him up- maybe he’s just not ready. But the Bahrain goalkeeper took flak for his performance against us. Song on the other hand plays for one of Korea’s best clubs.

    I didn’t expect Korea to cruise through this tournament, but gotta admit I wasn’t expecting a defeat this early.

    Maybe it is a good wake-up call, and better to be humbled when you still have a chance. But frankly I’m tired of Korean ajeossis (like the coach) thinking and speaking like they’re so much better than the rest of Asia- wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Song Bum-Keun has been hearing that his whole life with some racial epithets sprinkled in. Maybe in the end this is a good thing.

    • Also, though it’s an awful loss for us mentally, for this tournament it’s not like it’s over. 1st in the group is still possible, 2nd is easily attainable, and (hopefully not but tryin to be optimistic) even if we get 3rd we can still get to the next round.

      This isn’t the World Cup- I’m really not sure one side of the bracket is actually better than the other. Next round opponent is gonna be equally tricky no matter what (looks like either Iran or Japan/Vietnam). Just play

  3. What annoyed me most was son given the playmaker role. He made no impact at all. Imo hes at his best on the wings. Today Kim Jin Ya often times had tones of space like a wide poacher, it wouldve been better if Son occupied his spot, as there was no defensivd work needed anyways.

    • The constant play of longballs annoyed me aswell. Kim Min Jaes longballs almost never arrived. I liked how unpredictable they played against Bahrain pulling the defense out by playing short passes and then suddenly playing a ball over the top of the defense.

    • I’m not sure if Son was given the playmaker role. Korea’s desperately needed someone to hold the ball up and maybe Son just decided to take on this role by himself. I’m not sure if Korea had much of a plan. They probably thought they could just show up with any combination of players and win comfortably.

      • He occupied the role behind the strikers, while Hwang Inbeom the actual playmaker dropped. This was the coaches instruction. Besides the wingback positions theres no position for son on the sides. Korea played with 2 attacking mid positions behind the strikers, with one rather dropping and connecting play in the build-up. Son couldnt take up that role so he got the second attacking mid role of the playmaker distributing passes in the final third. He roamed from position, but was often found in the playmakee role which sucked.

      • Also to correct Mike, Son was a sub in for Kim Jung Min, not for Hwan In Beom. Hwan In Beom didn’t start the Malaysia game because coach’s intention was to rotate players for group stage.

    • Isn’t Son at times play as play-maker role back when he’s at Bundelisga? Even during Tottenham, Son sometimes plays like a play maker (but not often because that role mainly reserves for Christian Eriksen). I mean, Tottenham vs Everton game proves his skills at playmaker. But based on stat, his best position is winger based on his frequent playing experience at Leverkusen and Tottenham.

      It shouldn’t excuse whichever positions he plays, unless the coach orders him to play wing back or CB (and that’s no for sure). SK just plays terrible in this game, which everyone play terrible. Not only on Son. Everyone in this game play terrible. SK is just everywhere in this game due to complacency.

    • I think SK underestimates the south Asian teams in this game. They thought they would breeze through it even though if you track the stats, Asian teams are on the rise. Look at Vietnam, China, and Uzbekistan. I hope SK players (excluding Son because he said that no Asian team should be underestimated) know this because it’s very dangerous if you play with arrogant mindset that other teams are weak.

  4. Song was not good, but the defense made him look even worse. Hwang Hee Chan is so frustratingly ineffective. I’m not sure how he’s even a striker.

  5. Eh… Just a correction from a Singaporean here. We didn’t beat Japan in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, we only held them 0-0 at Saitama.

  6. South Korea young players have forgotten that Malaysian football team used to beat S Korea in the 70s & 80s – never underestimate the Malaysian team as I believe they are fighters as well despite their smaller physical size.

  7. This was a really disappointing result. Let’s hope the team regroups from this and finishes the group stage on a strong note. Obviously advancing to the knockout stage is paramount at this point. Let’s hope Son and some of the other senior players on the team are mentally preparing the younger players for a surely uphill campaign the rest of the way.

  8. A wake-up call is a cliche term. If they can only score one goal and give up 2 after running around for 90 minutes with Malaysia, the team and coach collectively suck.

  9. Actually if you calculate it, itd be better if Korea lost the game against Kyrgystan. Theyd advance as 3rd placed team and would possibly face FAR weaker teams. Theyd possibly proceed on the side of the tournement tree as they wouldve if they got the first spot in the group. I think Korea should just rest all players, theyd lose 2-0 MAX and theyd still advance.

  10. Of course they wanna show the public that they still got it, but in fact its so stupid how they lineup with thwir best players. Losing will get them easier opponents and desperately needed rest. If they win, theyll face Iran, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. If they lose theyd propably only face weak teams besides Japan. So annoying -.-

    • I thought they’d get first on goal difference if Malaysia lost to Bahrain (which is what actually happened). Wrong- first they look at points (tied for 6 each), then points in the head to head matchup. Since Korea lost to Malaysia, Malaysia gets first and Korea gets second. Asian Games does it differently than WC in that sense.

      Wonder if the coaching staff knew that? lol wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t! It’s been a comedy of errors

      • Also, not sure either side of the bracket is favorable. On one side, they’ll play Iran then likely Uzbek, on the other they’d play Japan then likely China. Pick your poison.

        One thing that does suck is they get one less day of rest/prep. I’d be more worried about that.

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