Back in 2017-2018, the Tavern crew members realized that we each had too many things going on in our personal lives. Over the past 4 years we’ve been in contact with each other all along discussing NT friendlies and all things Korean football, but didn’t have time to post regularly. More recently however, we’ve been discussing reviving the Tavern, and we’ve decided that we can contribute enough to keep it going again.
In our first post since our long hiatus, we have some gut reactions to the World Cup to share:
Hmmm… what to make of this World Cup? Positive start against Uruguay, massive disappointment against Ghana, huge turnaround against Portugal, and then getting spanked (but ultimately not hugely embarrassed) by Brazil. The emergence of Cho Gue-sung and Lee Kang-in. The disappearance of Son Heung-min. Bento definitely out to… maybe keep him if he wants to stay for four more years (turns out he doesn’t want to). Yeah it was quite a World Cup for Korea.
To be honest, I haven’t been obsessively following the national team since I ‘retired’ from writing and commenting about them following the end of the 2018 World Cup. I took in qualification and the friendlies, but it was just for fun and as a Korean. I didn’t perform any analysis on the tactics or bemoan when this player didn’t play or that player did. So, I actually thought that this World Cup would be a relatively easy watch. Just cheer for Korea, and whatever happens happens. But yeah, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Tactics, starting XI, subs, all of that came flooding back.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this group. Getting eliminated in the group stage seemed super likely given the quality that Portugal and Uruguay have. Ghana, while not highly rated, was one of those teams we just tend to struggle against. But at the same time, 1 win, 1 draw, 1 loss also didn’t seem out of the question either. And that’s what happened of course. The positive draw against Uruguay, the disappointing loss against Ghana, and then the big comeback win against Portugal. Going out to Brazil – even if they did run circles around us when they wanted to – is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
I’m going to throw some cold water here because I feel like, compared to some, I’m not quite as excited about the future of the national team. I think there is a core of players in there for the next cycle: Kim Min-jae, Lee Kang-in, Hwang In-beom, Hwang Hee-chan, Cho Gue-sung (and maybe Son Heung-min). But how those pieces fit together and who goes in around them is another question, and one that I don’t have a lot of confidence in yet. Who the next boss of the national team is also a massive question – and again I don’t have a huge amount of confidence in the KFA to get it right.
I think for me, part of the issue is remembering 2010. Son Heung-min was the next big thing, Ki Sung-yong and Lee Chung-yong, Koo Ja-cheol, Park Chu-young, and co. Surely we would kick on from a solid South Africa. Yeah, didn’t happen. Has the KFA learned their lessons? We’ll see.
I suppose it’s a bit of a shame to end on this note. So, I’ll just say that despite the slight cynicism about the future, I’m very proud of the team. After the disappointing loss to Ghana and then going down early to Portugal, it would have been easy for heads to drop and to have quietly bowed out of the group. But they fought and fought and managed to comeback to qualify. Even against Brazil after being down 4-0 at the break they could have thrown in the towel, but they still competed and managed to score a goal. So, kudos to the team. And to Bento. He doesn’t want to continue, and that’s fair enough. Korea is a tough job. I wasn’t always thrilled with his ideas, but in the end he did the job that he was hired to do. So thank you for your time and effort Bento. 수고하셨습니다.
I had zero expectations going into this tournament – Tim and I had been talking about how it would be a miracle if we got any more than 1-2 points – but in the end we were pleasantly surprised. We looked terrible in friendlies, the defense was shaky, Bento looked like a repeat of Hong Myungbo or Stielike, and our terrible luck with injuries hit us yet again, but it looks like we figured out how to focus when it counts… at times. Bento’s not a perfect coach, but he deserves props where it’s due, and it definitely helped that we didn’t have a merry-go-round of 3 managers this cycle like we did in the prior two. Luck played a role as well of course. With Bento stepping down from the KNT job, I am nervous and a little fearful to find out who’s next. Only Choi Yongsoo and Kim Hakbum have been floated in the media thus far and I don’t think any of us will be particularly thrilled if they were to be appointed. More on that in the coming days.
First and foremost, shoutout to the WC for bringing people together. I spoke to people who I hadn’t spoken to in ages and my professors, friends, and family all texted me after Korea’s games. The Korean football community, casual fans, and people who have never even heard of Son Heungmin all showed up to cheer on our team – it’s truly beautiful how this WC brought so many of us joy. Yet the WC is also a crazy emotional rollercoaster at least on my end – all my friends can attest to how salty I get when Japan wins, how depressed I was after Ghana, or how stoked I was after Portugal – and I’m sure all of us felt the same way.
In terms of individual players… a highlight for me has been Kim Moonhwan. RB has always been a weakness for us but KMH did surprisingly not terrible in the group stages, while KJS struggled more defensively, especially against Brazil. But kudos to him too for overcoming the pain of injuries in both 2014+2018 and showing some real offensive prowess at times. Lee Kangin – a player who I’ve been following since he was 9 years old and moved to Valencia (wow I’m getting old) – caught many eyes as did HIB. These two will certainly form the core of our midfield in the coming years. And I would also like to mention KKW vs Portugal, NSH vs Uruguay (who saw THAT coming?), JWY Sr. in the group stages at least (he didn’t screw up!), HHC (I’ve always said he’s the best offensive player for the national team) and KYK. Kim Youngkwon… once panned for THAT mistake vs Iran and more against Algeria, has now surely cemented his place as one of the top Korean CBs in history. Son Heungmin, who outside of one shining moment had a terrible tournament, we will discuss another time. And finally, hats off to Bento and his staff, who will surely be remembered as a successful coach for us despite all the criticism going into the 2022 WC.
I’m proud of our team, and I am very happy about the RO16 achievement. But there’s a lot of work to do, and realistically, we overperformed this edition. We need to get more players into European leagues, improve the Korean football structure back home, get the right people to run the KFA, somehow get around the military issue that will forever hold us back as long as North Korea exists, find better defensive midfielders, fullbacks, goalkeepers… the list goes on. Brazil exposed pretty much all of our weaknesses for the whole world to see. Oh and it would be nice to not have injuries to our best players for once as we have literally every WC since 2010. Finally, as much as it truly pains me to admit it, Japan look better than us as a team – they may never produce a SHM or a KMJ, but I think most neutrals would think Japan is better than Korea, and that’s just not acceptable. Until we fix those things I mentioned above among others, they will continue to get better and better as they have since 2010, whereas we seem to take backwards steps at every step of the way. Hwang Inbeom shares the sentiment.
That being said, there is clearly renewed interest in and respect for Korean football (even it was dampened after Brazil), and I hope we can use this momentum to better ourselves ahead of the Asian Cup, Olympics, Asian Games, and ultimately 2026. There is undoubtedly a shot at a brighter future. We have a track record of regressing after a successful tournament but hopefully this time the outcome will be a little different.
I thought I was a veteran enough to believe I could ride through this World Cup emotionless and simply take in Korea’s journey unfazed. Wrong again.
It was a roller coaster…on so many levels.
Prior to the start, many clouds had formed, from the tragic human rights issues related to the treatment of migrant workers dying to build a World Cup infrastructure at break neck speed to a corrupt bidding process won by an autocratic regime in a region that voting FIFA members were warned was too hot to hold the tournament in. Never underestimate how low FIFA can go.
All that aside, on the pitch level, Korea was going in wobbly with questions about player call ups and poor tune up friendlies. Analysts had them pegged for yet another early group stage exit, particularly as their fortunes seemed tied in to their newly injured talisman in Son Heung-min.
Low expectations and questions hung over like the fog. Why didn’t Bento call up Lee Seung-woo despite a dynamic K League Golden boot contending season? Was Kim Jin-su up to the task at left back? Will Lee Kang-in actually get to play? What on earth did Hwang Ui-jo do to merit his inclusion – by the way- thanks for service rendered in earlier qualifiers, but that was then. Not making the Olympicacos bench is now (consistent failure to score with golden opportunities a hallmark of his tenure in Greece and foreshadowing of things to come).
We have arrived at the point of no return. First test: Korea v Uruguay. Son was able to get into the XI albeit with a face
mask for protection post-orbital surgery. Tension eased somewhat thanks to a scoreless draw. Positives mixed with hand wringing anguish over missed chances by a wide open Hwang Ui-jo, followed by misses from In-beom and Son. Some could arguably claim to be postive of that draw -indeed there was pragmatism in garnering a point in a difficult group. Yet there were telltale warning signs. Lee Kang-in rode the bench, still not trusted with the start despite being impactful for Mallorca as a recognized prodigious youngster in La Liga. He did get his first World Cup debut in the match, but it was mere minutes.
Fast forward to the troubles with Ghana. The pressure was on as Korea found themselves on the backheels early with a 2 goal deficit. Cue the rollercoaster ride (never trust it’s wily mercurial nature) when Lee Kang-in entered fray. There’s nothing like the promise of the next generation: immediate impact made as the desperate Bento threw on the substitute that all of Korea was clamoring for. The Valencia trained 21 year old did not disappoint as he and Son worked to dispossess a Ghanaian winger. Lee, sensing opportunity – whipped in a quick thinking sumptuous cross into the box. A certain Cho Gue-sung burst between what looked like a phalanx of Ghanaian defenders to head the ball into the net with malice! Only what seemed like a moment later, Son released Kim Jin-su, and the Jeonbuk fullback delivered what appeared to be his only effective cross in the campaign – and there was Cho yet again for the equalizer! Game on and Korea was rocking to the DaeHanMinGuk beats.
But the roller coaster is a harsh mistress; not long after, Korea conceded the third and final blow with a shambolic scramble in the box. When the dust settled, the ball was in the back of the Korean net. Not even 10 minutes stoppage time and waves of Korean attacks and scoring chances could turn the tide. The whistle blew and with that, Korea found itself in a dire spot: last on 1 point and a frustrating defeat to the side ranked lowest for World Cup qualifying nations. A frustrated tearful Son Heung-min echoed the diaspora’s own frustrations. And yet…if you watched it close enough, there were the telltale signs of hope. Lee Kang-in’s late substitution may have been Bento’s roll of the dice but it nearly paid off – Korea’s midfield looked like it had a proper maestro with Lee conducting with Modric-like confidence. Hamstring hampered Hwang Hee-chan had been resting all this time. Coupled with Portugal’s ‘fortunate’ 2:0 win over Uruguay, and Portugal next in a must win game, would there be another twist to the plot?
Settling in to watch in a small restaurant/bar in my little town in Maryland along with a friend originally from Daegu, we were the only Koreans amongst a random World Cup crowd to witness the final stand vs Portugal on that fateful Friday. I had quiet reservation, resigned to the fates of the football gods. The early goal conceded confirmed a scenario I played out earlier in my head, that like Japan against both Spain and Germany, Korea would come from behind to win in the end. My friend was worried. Somehow I let go of all expectations and just allowed myself to take in the spectacle.
And then it happened, in the middle of that 1st half: hope.Lee Kang-in’s corner glanced off the back of a cowering Ronaldo and out in front of Kim Young-gwon – the very same who scored on the deflected corner kick that gave Korea a miraculous lead against Germany 4 years ago. Kim did not take his chance lightly and swept the ball into the net. 1:1 but it wasn’t enough.
Murmurs when the TV announcer informed us of Ghana earning a penalty. And then…nothing. No news emerged for quite some time. Turned out Andre Ayew, just as Asomoah Gyan before him12 years ago, missed a penalty kick against Uruguay. It would be Uruguay instead who would take the lead, and then another goal before halftime. The permutation margins were slender: Korea could advance with a must win against Portugal and a Uruguay win – under the condition they not exceed Korea on goal difference.
Korea labored hard to find one more goal. Chances came and went. Son kept dribbling into dead ends and uncharacteristically lost the ball often. Was it too much pressure or was it vision problems with his mask? Time excruciatingly went past the 90 minute mark. 7 minutes stoppage time announced. It was now or never.
Then it happened. Portugal camped out in Korea’s half hoping to finish them off when the ball came out to Son. One more time, yet another counter attacking chance – will it be unfruitful again? This time, there was an electric urgency with Son’s dribble. He found an extra gear and attacked the open space heading ever closer to Portugal’s goal. Realizing the danger, one, two, then three defenders caught up to Son. With all the attention on Son, none of them, including Bernardo Silva, noticed someone streaking parallel to them. All eyes on Son. The burden of expectations weighted heavily on his shoulders with a defenders surrounding him. He felt the presence of the ghost player sneaking by and on instinct, toe poked the ball through Silva’s legs. For a micro second, Matrix style freeze framing, the entire Portugal back line looked back and realized to their horror what was about to happen: Hwang Hee-chan, the forgotten Korean of Wolverhampton, latched onto Son’s impeccably timed through ball and delivered the finishing act in the miracle of Ar-Ryyan. Hwang’s shot, like lightning, struck the back of the Portuguese net suddenly and the entire Korean bench ran into the arms of Hwang to celebrate. The release of tension, the sheer joy, the magic of the moment was quickly realized. Korea would hang on snatch victory from the jaws of death 2:1 to defeat Portugal, repeating the victory from nearly 20 years ago that launched Korea to the knockout stage for the first time in their program.
Of course you remember the agony of waiting and witnessing Ghana holding off Uruguay in stoppage time to keep the scoreline 2:0. The images of Luis Suarez sobbing into his jersey would be frozen in memory of his last World Cup campaign. As soon as that whistle blew did the delayed celebration for Team Korea truly begin. Celebrations on relay, from Seoul, to LA, to NYC and to other far flung reaches of the globe. A moment of tears, this time in sheer euphoria, frozen in that moment in time.
기분이 좋아? You’re goddamn right.
I didn’t have high hopes for Korea against Brazil. It’s more than luck that’ll take a team deep into the World Cup, but the unsexy management of player rotations that keeps impact players fresh enough to play when it counts. If the player selections weren’t deep enough to rotate tired fullbacks, then the inevitable gulf of class becomes ever more apparent and exposed. Korea found itself down 4:0 by halftime.
At its best, Korea operates with a conceptual gestalt – that the whole team is greater than the sum of its parts. Brazil is a different beast spawned from an alternate footballing universe where not only do they exhibit gestalt, the inverse is simultaneously true where squad members’ individualism merges seamlessly into convergent deadliness. Presumably sufficient sacrifices had been made to the footballing gods by the Seleção, apt for a country where football is religion.
Credit to Bento where it’s due to get out of a difficult group, but fair critique for his faults, particularly when the likes of Lee Kang-in again sidelined when the beleaguered squad could’ve used more control in the midfield. It’s no wonder then that after the introduction of younger players like the aforementioned Lee and the ex-Barcelona academy kid Paik Seung-ho off the bench restored some measure of honor for Korea. The 2nd half was much better and more importantly, they didn’t give up and kept taking the game to Brazil. Fuck that scoreline, they weren’t going down without a fight. Lee Kang-in was instrumental in the attacking exchange that saw the ball bounce out to Paik more than 20 yards out. His fireball of a strike was jaw dropping. It swerved, dipped and deflected on in to the top corner of the net. Unwavering and unstoppable. With a vengeance. For a moment, with the quality of that goal, it conjured thoughts of what-could-have-been had Korea fended Brazil better in the first half. The full time whistle blew and it was the end of the road.
I’m still processing this result and Korea’s journey through this strange World Cup. What’s the takeaway of Korea’s 2022 campaign? Fall into camps in favor for or against Bento? Doesn’t matter now, he announced that he’s leaving and privately made that decision back in September. Perpetual ennui over the state of fullbacks? Hope for the future of Korea’s attack with younger players like Cho, Lee, and Paik gaining valuable World Cup experience? Then there’s the state of the Korean public’s ambivalence over the domestic K League, plagued by poor attendances and TV rating despite the nation’s fervor for the National football team. It’s a head scratcher. Don’t get me started on the institutional problems including young footballers shackled to 2 years military conscription- discouraging top flight European clubs from taking a risk to sign them over safer Japanese counterparts who have no such restrictions to their careers hanging over them. The future: I don’t know. I simply do not know.
What I do know is that following Korean football is endlessly fascinating because of all these quirks. And, despite the baggage of geopolitical obstacles stacked against them, Korea manage from time to time to punch above their weight. 2002 was one hell of an announcement, 2022 perhaps the echo of that original Big Bang. One can see in the near distant future where the Son will set, but another will eventually rise. There’s the Women’s World Cup on the horizon (Korea’s in it in case you didn’t know) and the Asian Cup around the corner. As evening falls and the team readies to depart from Doha, I reflect on the efforts of past and present Koreans, across the world what they’ve had to do to carve out their place in the world. It’s a bittersweet moment. The struggle continues and with it, new adventures. Night falls. The dawn awaits.