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Koo leads Korea in win over Uzbekistan

Now 2nd in Group A, a shot at World Cup berth materializes
Nov 18,2016
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Koo Ja-cheol celebrates his goal on Tuesday against Uzbekistan in the fifth match of the World Cup qualifiers. Koo’s late goal lifted Korea over Uzbekistan, adding hope for its ninth World Cup berth in 2018. [NEWSIS]
Korea edged out Uzbekistan on Tuesday in a dramatic 2-1 comeback win, securing the runner-up position in the group standings of the final regional qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup. With only five matches remaining in the qualifications for the World Cup in Russia, claiming victory from Tuesday’s game was crucial as only the winner and runner-up would be guaranteed a ticket to Moscow during the coming global football competition. And Korea’s hope for the ninth straight World Cup berth came off the tip of Koo Ja-choel’s foot.

Koo, a 27-year-old midfielder who currently plays for Bundesliga’s FC Augsburg, netted the winning goal with only five minutes remaining in the game on Tuesday. The goal was Koo’s second one in the final qualifiers, his first one coming from the match against China in September.

Two months ago, Koo scored the last goal of the match for Korea in the 66th minute, helping it beat China 3-2. Had it not been for Koo’s goal, Korea may have settled for a draw, as China scored late back-to-back goals in the 74th and 77th minutes.

Koo, known for his work ethic and discipline on and off the pitch, has worn the Korean jersey since 2007, when he was just 18 years old. Back when he played for the K-League Classic’s Jeju United, Mount Halla, a mountain in Jeju and the highest in South Korea at a height of 1,950 meters (6,398 feet), was his training ground. It is said he often ran up the mountain for training.

Koo admitted to the rumor and said during an interview with JoongAng Ilbo that he climbed up the mountain more than 50 times while he was in Jeju playing for United, mainly to improve his speed and endurance. “I was slow back then,” he said, recollecting one of his running sessions during which he had to climb a 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) course in just 50 minutes since the path was about to close down.

His dedication to work and train has paid off. Since leaving his old stomping ground in 2010, his career took off, internationally as well as club-wise.

On the international stage, he played a pivotal role in Korea’s run to finish third in the 2011 Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup in Qatar. The Korean midfielder was featured in every game that Korea played and netted five goals total to become the top scorer of the competition. He also played for the Olympic team during the 2012 London Summer Games and led the team to clinch bronze.

In his club career, after leaving Jeju for VfL Wolfsburg of Bundesliga in 2011, Koo was loaned out in 2012, during which he helped Augsburg avoid relegation in his maiden season with the team.

After a one-year stint at FSV Mainz 05, Koo returned to Augsburg in 2015 and has played for the club since. In all, he piled in 23 goals in 144 appearances in the German league. So far this season, he’s scored one goal for Augsburg. Koo is now one of the regular starters for the team in the center field.

The decorated career Koo has had bodes well for Korea’s future, especially in the coming World Cup, as it could definitely use the depth of experience coming from European leagues.

After the match on Tuesday against Uzbekistan, Koo was selected as Man of the Match for his go-ahead goal.

“We focused on taking three points from the game and nothing else,” Koo said during the post-match interview.

“Finally earning those three points and stepping up in the group standings, I feel relieved,” he said. “After giving out the lead, I think the players were under pressure. But this win will boost our confidence, especially because we are wrapping up the year with a victory from a crucial match. I myself am happy to have scored a goal since it has been a while since I put something on the board.”

Korea’s next game in its journey to Russia is slated for March. Korea will travel to China for an away match on March 23 and return home to host Syria five days later.

BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]