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Taeguk Warriors crush German hopes

Victory over defending champs still couldn’t save Korea from elimination
June 29,2018
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The Korean national football team celebrates after scoring a goal in their 2-0 win against Germany in the 2018 FIFA World Cup at Kazan Arena in Russia on Wednesday. [YONHAP]
Korea finished its 2018 World Cup campaign with a stunning 2-0 victory against defending champion Germany at Kazan Arena in Russia on Wednesday, though they failed to advance to the tournament’s knockout stage.

Prior to the match on Wednesday, Korea had lost to Sweden 1-0 and to Mexico 2-1. Head coach Shin Tae-yong went with a familiar 4-4-2 formation, with Son Heung-min and Koo Ja-cheol up front.

Despite a scoreless first half, Korea played beyond all expectations, as they managed to shut down Germany’s many scoring opportunities. Throughout the match, Korea managed to create chances, but struggled to convert them into shots on goal.

But the Taeguk Warriors finally broke the silence one minute into stoppage time, as Kim Young-gwon scored off of Son Heung-min’s free kick. Though the referee first ruled the goal offside, it was quickly changed thanks a review by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Once Kim scored, Germany’s goalie, Manuel Neuer, went upfield in a last-ditch attempt to score. However, Neuer’s leave from the net worked in Korea’s favor, as Son scored a goal just three minutes after Kim’s goal to extend Korea’s lead.

By scoring the first goal of the game, Kim silenced criticism over his attitude that he’s received in the past. Last year, Kim was criticized by fans after he said that he couldn’t communicate with teammates well on the pitch due to the noise from spectators during the World Cup qualifier against Iran on Aug. 31, 2017.

Many Korean football fans turned their backs on Kim after his comments, and since then, he has been on a mission to prove his worth.

“Those hard times really helped me to come this far,” Kim was quoted as saying. “If I hadn’t had that incident, I may not have scored a goal like I did today. The fans’ criticism made me improve and work harder.”

The team’s captain Ki Sung-yueng missed the game against Germany due to a calf injury, so Son took over as Korea’s leader.

There were concerns over how to replace Ki, as there weren’t a lot of players on the national team that had as much experience as Ki in bigger matches. But Son successfully led the side to a victory.

“It feels great [to beat Germany], but at the same time, it rings a bit hollow,” Shin was quoted as saying. “We wanted to cling to the 1 percent chance that we had. I told the players to battle hard.”

Korea’s win meant Germany was eliminated in the first round of the World Cup for the first time since 1938. Germany’s elimination in the group match continues to prove that the defending champion curse is true. For the last five World Cups, four out of five defending champions failed to make it out of the group stage.

For Korea, it was a historic win, as it became the first side from Asia to win against the defending champions at the World Cup.

“Winning a game is always a happy feeling, and we always want to win,” Son was quoted as saying. “I really wanted to beat Germany. I do have lots of Germans to thank for my time in Germany, but I wanted to win. But this victory was not made by myself. It’s what our team achieved.”

Korea’s goalie Jo Hyeon-woo once again surprised the world of football with his strong performance, as he was chosen as Man of the Match.

Jo managed to shut down Germany’s scoring opportunities, blocking six shots on goal throughout the match. Jo has become one of this World Cup’s breakout stars, starting in all three group matches at his first World Cup. Despite the amount of media attention Jo has received, he stayed humble.

“I am sure they [Kim Seung-gyu and Kim Jin-hyeon, his fellow goalkeepers] would have done a good job in the net if they got the nod,” Jo was quoted as saying after the match. “Everyone, from the players down to the coaching staff, competed as one for the people back home.”

Though Korea defeated Germany by two goals, they still failed to advance, as Sweden upset the favorites Mexico with their win. However, Jo and the team found out about their group stage elimination only after their match was completed.

“I only found out about the Mexico-Sweden result after our game,” Jo was quoted as saying. “Knowing that we’d just played our last match, I got some tears in my eyes later. We all played hard for our fans back home and tried to make sure we’d have no regrets at the end.”

For Korea to advance to the knockout stage, the team had to win against Germany by at least two goals, and Mexico had to defeat Sweden. Despite high expectations that Mexico would win, Sweden ended up advancing to the knockout stage as the winner of Group F. In the knockout stage, Mexico will play five-time World Cup champions Brazil, and Sweden will play against Switzerland.

“It’s disappointing that we couldn’t make it to the round of 16, but I think I saw a ray of hope from this win,” Shin was quoted as saying. “I think we’ll be able to use this experience as a foundation for improvements in the future.”

Korea finished third in Group F, and Germany left the World Cup in last place in the group. Sweden took first place and Mexico finished in second.

BY KANG YOO-RIM, SONG JI-HOON [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]