S. Korea overcome steep odds, injuries to write memorable underdog story

December 5, 2022

It wouldn’t really be an underdog story without challenges overcome and hurdles cleared. And to be sure, South Korea faced more than their share during their unlikely journey to the knockout phase of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

South Korea lost to Brazil 4-1 in the round of 16 at Stadium 974 in Doha on Monday night, falling short of joining the final eight in the big tournament.

That South Korea even reached this point is quite remarkable, considering the state of affairs at the beginning of the competition.

South Korea’s World Cup hopes appeared doomed weeks before the tournament even kicked off. On Nov. 1, South Korean captain Son Heung-min, playing in a UEFA Champions League match for Tottenham Hotspur, suffered multiple fractures around his left eye after colliding with an opposing player. He underwent surgery three days later, exactly 20 days before South Korea’s first Group H match against Uruguay.

Son wasn’t fully recovered in time for the World Cup but courageously played on while wearing a black, carbon mask, which quickly became his trademark. After being kept in check in the first two group matches, Son came through when South Korea needed him the most. He delivered a gorgeous assist through multiple legs on Hwang Hee-chan’s last-gasp winner for a 2-1 shock victory against Portugal, a result that, combined with a 2-0 Uruguay win over Ghana, sent South Korea into the knockouts.

Whenever he fielded questions about his mask, Son acknowledged the risks involved in playing when his face hadn’t completely healed. But Son also insisted not playing in the World Cup, as team captain, was not an option.

“I am doing what I love to do, and what I know I am supposed to do,” Son said after the Portugal match, during which he briefly took off his mask and played while holding it in his right hand. “Just because I took the mask off today, it doesn’t mean I am now able to play a match without it. But as long as there is even a small fraction of a chance that I can play, then I will keep playing.”

South Korea beat Portugal despite the absence of their best defender, center back Kim Min-jae.

Kim picked up a right calf injury during the second half of South Korea’s first match. Trying to chase down forward Darwin Nunez, Kim slipped and fell awkwardly. He stayed down in pain and received treatment but played the rest of the match.

Kim was held out of training sessions for two days after that match and still played nearly the entire game against Ghana before being subbed out during second-half stoppage time. And once again, Kim missed training to get treatment on his leg, so that he could be ready for South Korea’s must-win match against Portugal.

Kim ended up missing that match and played at less than 100 percent against Brazil.

Then there is midfielder Hwang Hee-chan, who missed the first two matches with a hamstring injury and then returned to score the thrilling winner against Portugal as a second-half sub. He earned a start against Brazil but, like most of his teammates, he was mostly held in check.

South Korea were far from being the only team bitten by the injury bug in Qatar, but if anyone could use their injury situation as a crutch for an early exit from the tournament, it’s this team.

For almost the entire tournament, South Korea had their best offensive player and their best defender at less than 100 percent. This was far from an ideal situation for an underdog team that needed optimal production from every key player just for a chance to reach the knockouts.

But South Korea refused to dwell on these injury situations. They forged ahead as the easy-to-root-for underdogs that they were. It just wasn’t enough in the end.

Son said after the Brazil loss that, the devastating loss aside, he was still proud of his team’s effort.

“We did our best but it was an extremely difficult match,” Son said in a televised interview. “But all the players here have battled proudly to get this far. There’s no doubt in my mind about everyone’s dedication and sacrifice.”