Asian Games: Korea Takes the Gold Medal!

Photo Credit: TheKFA Instagram. You know I had to do it. This photo is just too iconic.

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.

About Michael Welch 89 Articles
That Halfie Korean-American who loves football (I mean, soccer).


  1. I think this is the first time I have witnessed a korean coach who went from “I needed to experiment a few tactics for next fixtures” to “sorry for fooling around, we will win at all costs.” Son’s situation has definitely gave Asian Games more global recognition. gotta love #SavingPrivateSon

  2. I wonder if Son and the other Asian Games teammates that were chosen for next week’s friendlies will play. These guys need at least a month off before playing again. Paulo Bento does also need to prepare a lineup without Son for the group stages of the Asian Cup.

  3. What a match. I had that sinking feeling that as the match went scoreless, Korea would lose in a heartbreaking fashion. Amazing to see this team pull it off in extra time. That Lee SW goal was sublime; I’m impressed that he had the gall to take the ball from Son like that and shoot. As was mentioned in the article, Lee SW had the better chance to score, and even Son acknowledged that. This was a true team effort, and it was great to see Hwang HC score, as well. Son obviously played instrumental roles in both. You could tell Son was trying so hard to score and win this pivotal match. Glad to see him play an outsized role. And this tournament would not have been the same without Hwang Ui-jo, Hwang In-beom, Kim Min-jae, Cho Hyun-woo and others.

    Now we just need exemption for Paik SH, Lee Kangin and the next generation of Korean footballers! Also Steve Han was positing some interesting news on Twitter about the possibility for the entire exemption system to get overhauled.

    This has been such an exciting summer (yes, even though the WC was a bit of a letdown). Grateful for the writers over at the Tavern and for this community of fans. On to the fall friendlies and the Asian Cup in January! Let’s see if Korea can win this.

  4. I don’t think Korea U23 is a deserving champion since they have brought 5 of their first team players to the roster.

    Namely, Son, Leè SW, Hwang HC, Cho HW

    Ok, Hwang Ui Jo had a great tournament and rightfully deserve a temporary place in the first team.

    What I am trying to emphasise is they lost to a minnow like Malaysia in the Group Stage. No excuses for that.

    They might get pass Iran without all those star players but they will be definitely be going home against Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Japan if without those star players.

    Korea got beaten badly by the Uzbeks in the semis in the AFC U23 and Korea really had a difficult game in the AG quarters despite fielding many of its senior star players.

    Japan or maybe Uzbek seemed more like a deserving champion with a U21 squad but their consistency broke down in the extra time and got punished dearly.

    • I don’t know. I don’t think it is ever a easy argument to say another team deserved to win a tournament more. Korea followed the rules of the competition by naming 3 overage players and a U23 roster. Just because other nations didn’t do that but performed “better” than Korea doesn’t really mean they deserve the title more, imo.

      Also, Uzbekistan did bring overage players and still didn’t win the match.

      In terms of Japan, they deserve a lot of credit for their play but Korea were clearly on top for the entire match. Would Japan have won if they brought a true U23 team and some first team overage players? Who knows? But they didn’t do that and they lost. I dunno, I think it’s hard to say that other teams “deserve” the title more. That’s just my opinion.

      • Great for the guys to get exemption. And you are right that no one team “deserves” it more than another. I hear you Michael, but I gotta agree with Sam in that this Asian Games win does not mean much in terms of our national team suddenly being on the rise. I am not trying to be negative, I’m only trying to be realistic. It is good to get excited, but everyone needs to pump the brakes just a bit.

        I guess my point is that the casual fan may not understand how lopsided our team was compared to the others at the Asian Games. National team tournaments (WC, Asian Cup) and qualification games for those tournaments are really the only place where we can see the caliber of our team. The fact is, Korea has not been that good in those games (except 2015 Asian Cup).

        We will see how they are doing when they play Costa Rice and Chile (even those teams will probably be jet-lagged and will also be missing their star players, but still a better test than Son Heung Min v u-21 teams).

        Also, your argument about Korea dominating Japan throughout the game is true, but you could also say that Germany was on top of Korea throughout the WC game and we got some lucky bounces in extra time. That wouldn’t be wrong, but that would not change the fact that it was a great performance by our team. The fact that we struggled against a young Japanese team gave me a more worried reaction than excitement about military exemption (which was what I kind of always expected). To each their own. At the end of the day, they got exemption and that is all that matters right now.

        • I really agree with a lot of what you said. However, I do want to add to what you said about the games that matter for the national team. Does the Asian Games win mean that the national team is on the rise? Of course not. But I do think it means something.

          What I think it means is that overall our youth system is healthy enough to help the senior national team improve in the future. The Asian Games is a youth tournament and it’s important to give U23 players good winning experience that gives them the confidence to move up to the senior team. For Korea, it’s especially important for youth players to win exemptions so it’s a good sign for this generation of players. If we add an Olympic medal in 2 years in Tokyo, we would be looking at a really good sign for the health of the Korean team in general.

          • Yeah I mean we’ll be going around in circles on this one- at the end of the day, we can always celebrate a tournament win. But, I’m not sure this tournament really says anything about our youth system because it is not a real representation. Son and Cho alone tipped the team to another side. Again, totally within Korea’s rights to do that- but no other team really did. It’s not only age- Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Japan could have brought players who just played in the World Cup and they didn’t.

            For me, it is (at best) weird and (at worst) worrisome that half of the “youth” team that we fielded at the Asian Games will also be starters on our national team for the Asian Cup (Son, LSW, Hwang, Cho, Kim Minjae. Hwang Uijo has not been on the national team, but I know he is going to be- he’s already been called up for the friendlies). I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but it’s…. weird. The Japanese Asian Games team had *some* promising players, but basically the majority of them have a very slim chance of making the Asian Cup roster. I would say the same goes for Iran and (maybe) Uzbekistan. I’m pretty sure that for the Australia U-23 team, it would be the same.

            For all of those reasons, I completely understand why Uzbekistan was angry at the referees at the end of our game against them. They were a team of underdog nobodies playing against (in many ways) a WC team that really should have won the AG tournament easily, and they played their hearts out and took them to extra time. Then the referees gave a penalty to Korea- the odds were already stacked against them, and that made it nearly impossible. A win is a win and Korea got the win fairly, but it was a back-breaker when you look at how lopsided the teams were.

          • One last point: I’m **happy** that LSW and Hwang Hee Chan are part of our **national** team. I think it’s great that we are looking to our youth to drive the national team. It’s definitely the right move.
            But if we’re looking at how our youth system is compared to other Asian countries, I might be more inclined to look at the 2018 AFC U-23 tournament, and we got 4th.

          • I wouldn’t look at the AFC U23 Tournament from January. The coach at that tournament got fired right after the tournament. It was mostly Kim Bong-gil’s (the coach) tactical inability that should be looked at with that 4th place finish.

          • OK, but there are a LOT of examples in sports history where a coach got sacked after underperforming in a tournament. If we always said it was the coaches’ fault, then I guess every losing team was actually really great? (sarcasm) 😉

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