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Sports

A tale of two Asiad-winning teams

One squad returned as heroes, the other came home to anger, disdain
Sept 05,2018
The under-23 Korean football team, left, and Korean baseball team pose for photos at Incheon International Airport on Monday after returning home from the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. [NEWS1]
Football and baseball are the two most popular sports in Korea. The KBO and K League are the most-watched domestic leagues and it comes as no surprise that the two team sports make for some of the most-watched events at international competitions like the Asian Games.

At the 2018 Asiad, the Korean football and baseball teams had surprisingly similar journeys. They both seemed to struggle in the group stages, taking an unexpected loss in a game that was expected to be an easy victory. They both got through to the finals, seemingly improving the further they got in the competition. Both teams faced off against Japan in the gold medal games and both defended their titles to emerge victorious.

That’s where the similarities end.

The football team returned to Korea on Monday to a hero’s welcome, greeted at Incheon International Airport by thousands of fans gathered to celebrate their victory.

The equally victorious baseball team walked out of Incheon Airport to be met with silence.

Despite a successful gold-medal campaign, the Korean national baseball has been plagued with criticism throughout the Asian Games. The problem doesn’t stem from their play - although a shock loss to Taiwan in the group stage didn’t exactly help things - it comes from the controversial inclusion of Oh Ji-hwan of the LG Twins and Park Hae-min of the Samsung Lions on the final roster.

Oh and Park were strange additions to the team. Neither player stood out as an obvious pick when they were added to the roster in June. Both players had yet to serve their military service and both are now too old to be conscripted into the military and police baseball teams, the Sangmu Phoenix and Police Baseball Team in the Futures League.

Fans have been suspicious since their inclusion in the squad was first announced, and this animosity has only grown throughout the Games.

“Among the players, we were asking, ‘will this continue even if we win gold?’ But since we’re actually not hearing any compliments even after winning gold, we are discouraged,” said Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers. “Then we started thinking what would have happened if we hadn’t won. After we won, I checked the related articles through my phone, but I couldn’t read the comments because I was so scared.”

Despite the victory, captain Kim Hyun-soo of the LG Twins had to keep his head down.

“Right now, whatever I say will sound like an excuse,” admitted Kim.

Despite the criticism, manager Sun Dong-yol and members of the national team continuously said they would silence the critics by playing well. This tactic might have worked if Korea hadn’t started off their Games with a 2-1 loss against Taiwan.

Although they followed with a huge 15-0 victory over Indonesia and a 21-3 win over Hong Kong, critics of the team would not be silenced. Once they advanced to the super round, Korea defeated Japan and China for gold.

The Korean football team also had a shocking 2-1 loss against 164th ranked Malaysia for the first time in 44 years. Due to this, Korea finished second in their group matches and had to take a tougher road to the final, which included matches against Iran and Uzbekistan. But as the team advanced each round, fans started cheering for the young squad.

While all 20 players on the football team hadn’t fulfilled their military service, fans were left with no doubts that they were picked for the team based on ability. Every member of the squad played their part in ensuring Korea reached its second straight title.

The addition of Hwang Ui-jo of Gamba Osaka as a wild-card pick was controversial as he wasn’t even considered for the national team at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Unlike the baseball team, Hwang didn’t struggle to silence his critics - he scored nine goals at the Asiad, becoming the leading scorer of the competition.

Baseball fans were less impressed by the performance of Oh and Park. While Park did play reasonably well throughout the competition, Oh had a disappointing tournament. He went one-for-two with a walk and two runs scored off the bench and a pitch-running appearance during the final gold medal game against Japan.

Oh’s performance did little to convince fans that he had earned his spot on the team based on his abilities.

BY PARK SO-YOUNG, KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]
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