On a warm, early summer’s night in Canada’s capital, a crowd just over 21,000 witnessed the most monumental comeback in South Korean women’s football. It wasn’t always pretty, and luck did help us on our way, but at the end of the evening, Korea came out winners of a veritable Jekyll and Hyde tale of two halves.
Yoon Deokyeo made just one change to the lineup that drew Costa Rica in Montreal, bringing in 5 ft 11 striker Park Eunseon in for Yoo Younga. Park must have been thrilled to grace the pitch at a World Cup, and I find it is most fitting for her after overcoming what must have been an extremely difficult and deeply embarrassing time in her life.
I did have some questions about Yoon’s lineup however, as rotation didn’t seem to be a language the Korean manager spoke. Despite this, you could understand the enormity of the situation – Korea had to win. Therefore, rotation might not have been the most reliable idea.
The Spaniards came out of the gate flying. Crisp, accurate passing, beating every Korean to the ball, making use of the space Korea conceded. Because the Korean defensive line plays very narrowly, and because of Corredera’s pace on the right wing – in a 4-5-1 formation – the Spanish ladies’ opted for that attack route often. But it wasn’t just Lee Eun-mi who was made to work as leftback, the centre-back pairing of Shim Seoyeon-Hwang Boram had some early gaffes, including a very dangerous shot from misfiring Spanish one-top Pablos.
If the first 15 minutes were any indication, it wasn’t going to be pretty for Korea. Save for one piercing Ji Soyun run up the middle – showing her true control and sheer quality – the Eujahs were pinned back, left to defend a Spanish side hungry for goals after failing to convert most of their chances in earlier group ties against Brazil and Costa Rica. The Europeans passed with precision, and attacked with purpose – for them, a win would also see them to the knockout stages, and with an Olympic berth on the line as well, the future of the Spanish women’s national team for the next few years was on the line.
When the Koreans did get forward, it was through longballs to Park Eunseon. This tactic in itself is far from surprising, as the physical Korean forward gave her markers a hard time the entire game, but it was the inability of her teammates to pick up the second balls from her aerial duels that left much to be desired and had me quite perplexed. They couldn’t stretch it wide to Jeon Gaeul, because Spain double and triple-teamed her immediately, and Cho Sohyun’s passing had been simply atrocious.
The bottom of the hour – 30 minutes played. And Spain had their first goal. It came through miscommunication in defense, with Spanish captain Boquete’s late run into the box going unmarked. The low cross came in and she made no mistake. Korea needed 2, and despite the largely pro-Korean crowd at Lansdowne Park making a whole lot of noise, it seemed extremely unlikely that Korea would get one, let alone two.
In fact, what was more likely at the time was a second Spanish goal. Once again, Kim Hyeri was beat out on the right flank – the Spaniards using their width to overload both flanks now – and the cross came in to a Spanish player who’s name escapes me at the moment. Nonetheless, there she was, not more than 10 yards out from goal, with only Kim Jungmi to beat. Thank the heavens, she shot right at the Korean keeper, who palmed it away gratefully. The centrebacks got a stern earful from Kim, nowhere to be seen in that latest Spanish opportunity.
The halftime whistle came, and it was more of a relief to the Koreans than anything else. They were losing every challenge (save for Park Eunseon’s aerial challenge), losing possession cheaply and defending unconvincingly. That was Dr. Hyde.
Time for Mr. Jekyll.
Yoon Deokyeo was forced into one change at halftime, with rightback Kim Hyeri being replaced by Kim Sooyun due to a knock to the former.
Korea didn’t really look much better in the early minutes of the second half. Tired legs, desperate passes, erroneous clearances – you get the picture. And yet, a rare astray pass from the Spaniards – intercepted by Ji Soyun – led to Korea’s first chance of the goal. Ji threaded a pass out wide to winger Kang Yoomi. Kang had already displayed her excellent crossing ability against Costa Rica, and she did it again here. Her chipped cross landed perfectly for the late run of Cho Sohyun, who placed herself between the two Spanish centrebacks. First chance, first goal. The ball was headed home perfectly by Cho on 52 minutes. There was hope.
It is amazing what a goal can do sometimes, because the effect of this one was monumental. A confident, composed, fit Spanish team turned into one on the back foot, making errant passes and looking deprived of the confidence they had earlier in the game. Momentum shift is apt to describe this. And Korea pushed on the gas pedal.
Yoon Deokyeo took out Park Eunseon, and subbed in regular striker (For this tournament at least) Yoo Younga. The Korean manager probably wanted to have fresh legs run at a Spanish defense who did have to deal with the towering, physical Korean striker for 60 minutes.
Fast forward to the 75th minute about, with Spain making all three of their changes with fresh attacking players. At the time, Las Ticas were still holding Brazil to a draw, meaning that Spain needed to win to advance, and a draw would not suffice for neither Korea nor the Europeans. However, these substitutions in attack did little to remedy the fact that the Korean Eujahs were in the driver’s seat. They were now controlling the game, controlling possession, and it was the Spanish wall of 5 midfielders that gave Korea hell in trying to break through.
It seemed like both teams were heading for a stalemate, with Spain unable to get much of the ball and Korea unable to create with the ball, when the unlikely heroine scored the eventual winner. It certainly was an accident, and it certainly was lucky, but I’d like to think you create your own luck sometimes. The substitute, the right-back Kim Sooyun delivered an errant cross into the box. Instead of heading towards the two red shirts in the box, it headed towards the goal… and conveniently beat the keeper and went in, sending Korean fans all across the world into a state of unexpected delirium on 81 minutes.
The job was not complete however. Both teams had made all three subs, and now it was Korea’s that looked the most useless, with a lead to protect. But Spain failed miserably at a time when Korea resorted to seeing the game out and defending. They could not win a challenge, they could not play accurate passes anymore. Their first half performance was a long, long cry from what they had put on the pitch for the second.
But it might not have mattered at all, as their one real opportunity in the half came off of Korea’s unfortunate inability to properly clear their lines off of a longball in the 93rd minute. With the ball just outside of the penalty box, a scramble with players from both teams ensued, and the ball eventually struck the arm of Hwang Boram. Replays showed it was pretty deliberate, and she could have received her second booking for the foul.
Nonetheless, it gave Spain one last free kick on the last kick of the game. The final score from Moncton added to the drama – a late Brazilian goal meant a draw would see Spain through to a lottery with Costa Rica for the final spot, instead of Spain not having a chance at all. Sonja (I believe) set up behind the ball, Koreans from continent to continent holding their breath in unison. I’ll let my Twittercast outburst explain the rest:
— Taeguk Warriors (@taeguk_warrior) June 18, 2015
The final whistle blew. The comeback was complete. Korea were through. Their first win in Women’s World Cup history – their first knockout round berth. Pandemonium.
I, for one, am going to have to explain to the neighbours why I screamed “goooooooal!” on a random, Wednesday night for them. But for me, it’s not a random Wednesday night. It’s a Wednesday night that will forever be etched in Korean women’s football history.
Will we have more to add to that history? Only time can tell. Korea will face France in the Round of 16, a formidable opponent with quality players. But with tonight’s morale-boosting triumph, perhaps the sky’s the limit for our Taeguk Eujahs.
Jalgayo and good night – oh what a night – from the TSQ.