ONE NIGHT after Japan turned Spain upside down and topped their pool, neighboring South Korea delivered another surprise by defeating Portugal to advance to the round of 16 at the expense of Uruguay. wild drama.
It looked like a lost cause for South Korea against Portugal, which included not only Cristiano Ronaldo, but also an ensemble of Europe’s most highly regarded players. The task seemed bleaker when Portugal scored through Lus Ricardo Horta as early as the fifth minute.
During the next 20 minutes, Portugal could have scored several times if the Koreans had not defended bravely and risked everything. The persistence paid off when Kim Young-Gwon equalized in the 27th minute.
They had to score another goal over the next 63 minutes, keep Portugal away from retaking the lead – and hope that group rivals Uruguay wouldn’t add to the two goals they had scored in the opening 32 minutes against Ghana in the other game. In the stands, the Korean fans, who had turned up en masse with those ubiquitous horns on their heads, were frantic to check the scores of the Portugal-Ghana match.
For a moment it seemed that the night would not be Korea’s as a goal kept eluded them. But they didn’t give up, like the Japanese against Spain last night. They continued to storm the Portuguese goal mouth and 31 seconds into stoppage time found a source of hope in this desert city.
The goal stemmed from their talisman Heung-min Son’s lung-breaking run to the Portuguese side. Once inside the Portuguese post, he slid in a centimeter-perfect pass to Hwang Hee-Chan, who made the shadow flight. The Koreans on the ground, in the dugout and stands, and probably on land, jumped for joy.
But they had six minutes of extra time to wade through and pray that Ghana would prevent Uruguay from scoring another goal. For the Ghanaians in their grudge match against Uruguay, the next best thing, other than winning, was to deny Uruguay a knockout spot. They defended fiercely and held Uruguay off, making this the third time three teams from the Asian confederation have reached the round of 16 (Japan, Korea and Australia, which is considered part of the Asian qualifying system).
Their progress can be determined as a fluke. Korea played an organized game, compact in defense and precise in counterattack. So was Japan, combative and physical, playing deep and direct on fast counters and optimizing their chances with laser-guided precision.
Late on Thursday, Japan conceded just three shots on goal against Spain, and two of those were goals. The numbers against Germany were similar earlier – they converted two of the four chances they had. Against Germany they had 26 percent possession; against Spain just 18. Still, when goal scoring moments came, they held on. As their manager Hajime Moriyasu said later, “We have reached the world standard.”
Korean coach Paulo Bento, who was watching Friday’s game from the stands when he was shown a red card for an outburst to the referee in their earlier match against Ghana, was able to echo his Japanese counterpart.
Gone are the days when Asian teams were viewed with condescension just because they made the numbers. Japan has reached the eighth finals three times in the five editions. Korea had reached the semi-finals in the 2002 edition, although they were reportedly the beneficiaries of an atrocious referee. But no star would be attached to their recent journey to the knockout, as it was for Japan.
It should not be misinterpreted that Asian teams benefited from playing in Asia. It could then be argued that European and American teams have always had home field advantage, as only three World Cups have been played in Asia and Africa.
Rather, it is a moment to appreciate the merit of Asian football.
Both Japan and Korea have robust leagues and have a legion of players playing in Europe’s leagues. Japan has 451; Korea has 330 abroad. Some of them belong to the elite. Like Son, half of Tottenham Hotspur’s deadly striker. The match-winning Hwang is Wolverhampton Wanderers’ most trusted attacker.
In their journey to the steep path of acclaim, they have shattered perception. Asian players are not just about twinkling feet and silky skills, but they are technical and physical players who can match their European and American counterparts in every aspect of the game. If the world has yet to notice and acknowledge their vault, all they need to do is tune in to this World Cup.
Japan scalped Germany and Spain, with a combined run of five World Cups, countries that have shaped the tactics and philosophies of modern football. Korea stunned Portugal, the Portugal of Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes. Now it is time for Asian football to not just stand with its head held high, but call the Europeans equals. In this World Cup they were more than equal.