The South Korean national football team reached unprecedented heights in 2002 when it defeated Portugal, Italy, and Spain to earn a fourth place ranking in the World Cup. In the hearts of all South Koreans who witnessed history that year are memories of the famed seven dismantling some of the world’s best defenses. The 2002 match thrust Korean soccer legend Park Ji-sung into the limelight, highlighting the flick and goal that defeated Portugal and brought Korea to its first semifinals.
“I grew up watching Manchester United play on television, and watching Park dribbling through defenders really influenced my friends and I to start playing soccer,” said Brandon Oh (11), a passionate fan of the game. “I think Park inspired a whole new generation of young talents to pick up the sport.”
Flash forward to 2018, where the Red Devils’ world cup glory hopes rest on the shoulders of an equally talented No. 7, a rightful heir of the throne: Son Heung-min. Like Park, Son plies his trade in England for Tottenham and is famous for his indefatigable spirit. Clocking up 19 goals this season, he scored crucial goals against the world’s best clubs including Dortmund, Liverpool and Juventus. However, maybe experience is not what this Korean team needs: despite having the most World Cup experience in the Asian continent and reaching the final stages ten times, Korea uncharacteristically stumbled through the qualifying stage this year with four wins, three draws and three losses, finishing seven points behind Iran and risking elimination on more than one occasion. China shocked the world when they snatched a 1-0 win from South Korea, handing the Koreans their second loss to the Chinese in the past 32 years.
“I’ve been following the national team for a long time, and this was the first time I got nervous that Korea might not even make it to the World Cup,” said Claire Kim (9), varsity girls soccer athlete. “The losses to Qatar and China especially shocked me. I think we have a lot of room for improvement on the big stage.”
However, an even scarier group of nations stand in Korea’s way in the World Cup, consisting of defending champion Germany, dynamic Sweden and veteran Mexico. This quartet is arguably the strongest and most balanced of all the groups, sharing 41 World Cup appearances. The endless efficiency of the Germans may prove nearly impossible to defeat, while Mexico has been tested in many battles and have come out victorious. Confidence will also be high in the Mexican team as they coasted to first place in their qualifying group, losing only a single game throughout their campaign. Sweden is coming off the back of a shock defeat of World Cup perennials Italy, who will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1958. Sweden achieved all of this the hard way, playing without their main talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the most iconic Scandinavians to ever grace the pitch. So with the standards all set, what should South Korea realistically aim for?
“Even the chances of reaching the knockouts are pretty slim, but in my opinion, that’s what makes it so interesting,” said Youn Hwang (9), member of the JV boys basketball and volleyball teams. “Since a win or loss is determined by just ninety minutes, there are more chances of having upsets and unexpected results.”
Shin Tae-yong, head of the Korean national soccer team, is similarly optimistic but warns Korea to take successes one at a time. Tasting victory in their first match against Sweden will be crucial, as it will serve as a springboard for future successes. Shin’s squad, filled with youthful, explosive talents across the pitch, will be hoping to make it out of the group stage and maybe even reach the heights of 2002.
“I’ve been waiting for this summer for four years,” said Jacob Lim (9), a sports fanatic. “Whatever happens, with our players matching up against the world’s best, it’s going to be breathtaking.”