Jeong Jeong-yong, the head coach of South Korea’s (SK) national U-20 football team, has once said, “We’re one team. From the starting to the bench players, from the nation to all the coaching staff, we’re one team.” Two months ago, young football players gathered in Paju, SK, to discuss either the semifinals or finals as their goal for the U-20 World Cup. Some have said it may be too high to achieve, but the team managed to reduce those doubts within the next two months. The players who are just turning 20 years old have defeated the world’s best football teams in their age group, and for the first time in South Korean men’s football history, they became the runner-up champions in a FIFA-sponsored tournament.
From the first game against Portugal, there was a wide gap in individual skills of the players in each team. At that time, the majority had thought that winning the U-20 World Cup was unlikely and that it was the last major tournament for experience rather than a platform to prove the team’s ability. Though defeated 1-0, the players were not discouraged. The players said in one voice, “It’s sad and painful, but we can do it.” Soon, with two consecutive wins against South Africa and Argentina by 1-0 and 2-1 respectively, SK advanced to round 16. The big match for SK against Japan in round 16 was under massive pressure. Defending Japan’s offensive attacks with an organized system, SK fought hard with improved teamwork and Lee Kang-In’s (18·Valencia) plays at its peak. Before the finals, the Head Coach Jeong confessed, “The Korean-Japan match was the hardest game.” Senegal, the quarterfinals opponent, was a team that Coach Jeong warned as, “the strongest opponents among the quarterfinals teams.”
In situations where Korean players can take control of the ball against other opponents, they were all prevented with Senegal’s overwhelming physique. For example, Ousseynou Diagne—a 190 cm-tall-midfielder—overwhelmed Lee Kang-In who is 20cm shorter, clearly showing the disadvantages SK had from the start. Though Lee Ji-sol (19) made a goal in overtime, Senegal equalized it in the additional time of the overtime and made penalty kicks after 120 minutes of a desperate fight, making a victory still too far fetched. Conversely, in the semifinals against Ecuador, SK led the game for the majority and took the game home by 1-0.
South Korea, the third Asian country to reach the finals, sought to win the U-20 World Cup which Qatar and Japan had failed to achieve, but ended up as the runner-up champions, giving three goals away despite an early first goal by Lee Kang-In. The ‘Golden Era’ for the South Korean football history may begin with the end to this 2019 World Cup.
Although football is a team sport, several young players performed exceptionally well in Poland and received recognition for their efforts. As of now, the Korean football is under Lee Kang-In’s feet. After SK finished as runner-ups, its midfielder, Lee Kang-In, became the second Asian player to win the Adidas Golden Ball, joining the likes of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi as well as Paul Pogba in receiving the honor as the best player of the tournament. The youngest player in his team was able to turn the tables, thanks to his composure and control over the ball. He remarked, “This is all thanks to the coaching staff and to my team-mates, who were tireless. . . . We didn’t get the win, but that’s just the way it goes. . . . We couldn’t have tried any harder. It’s been a fantastic tournament, and on a personal level, I’m very happy with how I performed. I hope I can have another experience like this. We are sincerely very grateful to the fans back home in Korea.”
The 18-year-old dictated the rhythm of the game and was always capable of playing the decisive passes. Lee was also called up to Korea’s senior squad for the first time in March 2019, where an exciting future awaits. Shootdori gained an unbelievable amount of attention as words from his old coaches were on the front cover of the news of the KBS entertainment program. Lee’s SNS influence is, if not more, like a typhoon. There are numerous predictions on whether he’ll stay in his club team or transfer to another, magnifying the curiosity of many national and international fans.
The Korean Football Association held an official welcoming ceremony at Seoul Plaza on June 17. Questions from the public were asked to the players, which enabled the team and the people to interact together and talk more about the ‘behind the scenes’ stories of this tournament. Furthermore, President Moon Jae-in said on June 19 from the Blue House luncheon, that SK’s men’s Under-20 football team has made the whole nation happy, finishing with the historical record of its runners-up at the tournament.
Soon after, the U-20 national team players and coaching staff will be resuming their own paths. What they have done in Poland is perhaps just the beginning to a new chapter of their career. The ace Kang-In Lee raises many questions of where his new destination would be. Although Lee signed a contract with Valencia on the buyout price of $100 million, he has a very marginal chance to play on the field. PSV, the Dutch elite Ajax, had reached the semifinals of this year’s UEFA Champions League and had shown interest in Lee. Levante, ranked 15th in the 2018-19 season, is offering Lee the starting position in their club team.
Among the players, several have the potential to play in the European leagues. As the World Cup was held in Europe, it attracted more scouts from the directors and head coaches of those leagues. Other than Lee Kang-in, key players such as striker Cho Young-wook from Seoul and left-back Choi Joon of Yonsei University were in the spotlight throughout the tournament.
In South Korea, there are only two events available for athletes to receive an exemption of the military service. According to the current Military Service Law, athletes who have won the gold medal at the Asian games and the third place or above at the Olympics are eligible for exemption. In the next ten years or so, more tournaments like the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 2022 Asian Game, 2024 Olympics, and 2024 Asian Games would await these young and aspiring South Korean players.