Emergency backup at World Cup hopes for turn to shine in 2026

December 16, 2022

SEOUL, Dec. 14 (Yonhap) — South Korean forward Oh Hyeon-gyu was so close to getting his first taste of the FIFA World Cup this year and yet so far.

Oh traveled with the 26-man national team to Qatar for the big tournament as an emergency backup, the 27th man who would have been called in for any injured player but who was ultimately not needed during South Korea’s run to the round of 16.

Oh, the 21-year-old forward for Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the K League 1, was a full participant in every training session in between matches and was one of the team’s biggest cheerleaders on the bench during them.

Oh said Wednesday just being around the national team was an invaluable learning experience that inspired him to dream big dreams.

“It was a wake-up call for me to see everyone on the team prepare so hard for every match,” Oh said at a press conference at Suwon World Cup Stadium, some 35 kilometers south of Seoul. “I could see why they were representing the country. I had so much to learn from them, and I’d love to get my own number and play in the World Cup four years later.”

Head coach Paulo Bento named Oh, who led Suwon with 13 goals in 2022, as his extra forward, with captain Son Heung-min still recovering from facial fractures he’d suffered in early November. Son ended up playing all four South Korean matches wearing a protective mask, and there was no other major injury that forced Bento to summon Oh.

Oh insisted he never wanted to play at someone’s expense.

“In order for me to play, someone would have had to be hurt, and that would have made me feel terrible,” Oh said. “Throughout the tournament, I was hoping everyone would stay healthy from start to finish. I am not disappointed that I didn’t get to play. I am grateful that I had a chance to learn from the guys and to start aiming higher.”

Oh said he appreciated the way his teammates embraced him as part of the squad.

“Maybe they thought I was going to feel lonely. They all went out of their way to make me feel comfortable,” Oh said. “I had such a great time around them. I didn’t want the tournament to end.”

After returning home from Qatar last Wednesday, Son singled out Oh as one of the most important players for South Korea at the World Cup, citing Oh’s sacrifices behind the scene and his positive attitude despite his uncertain status.

Oh, who volunteered as the ball boy during warmups before matches, said his white pair of running shoes later turned green because he’d run so much on the pitch trying to retrieve balls for his teammates.

“That’s when I knew I had done my part,” Oh recalled.

Oh is coming off a breakout campaign with Suwon. He led his club with a career-high 13 goals and scored a crucial goal in the promotion-relegation playoffs to keep the team in the K League 1 for 2023.

“This season gave me a ton of confidence for next year,” Oh said. “I’d like to go for the scoring title and help the team play better next season.”