Not that long ago, the idea that two Asian nations would reach the bronze medal match at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament would be almost unthinkable. Yet throughout this edition at London 2012, one of the biggest highlights was the standard of football played by both Korea Republic and Japan – with the pair even drawing praise from Brazil boss Mano Menezes.
One of the leading figures in this new crop of talented South Koreans, Ji Dongwon, spoke to FIFA.com and gave a very good idea of just how much a bronze medal – often written off as a mere consolation prize – would mean to the game in his country. Assuming, of course, that they are able to beat the Japanese in Friday’s bronze medal match in Cardiff.
“I was still a boy when Korea Republic hit their highest heights: reaching the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup,” said the Sunderland attacker, among his side’s star men here on British soil. “What is more, our coach here, Hong [Myung Bo] was the captain of that team of national heroes. For me, they were magnificently and totally inspiring. And, as you’ll know, the theme of this Olympic Games is ‘Inspire a generation.’
“We, right now, are at a historic peak for South Korean Olympic Football,” he continued. “My team-mates and I are, at this moment in time, inspiring the next generation of our country’s footballers. Even though we weren’t able to make the final at Wembley, I truly believe that we can lay foundations for the future. A bronze medal would be a lovely souvenir and help inspire the children of Korea Republic.”
What is more, Dongwon himself admitted that the significance of this game is greater given the Koreans are taking on familiar regional foes. “It’s not just a bronze medal match, it’s a decisive moment for two Far Eastern countries. The pressure is huge. Everybody in the side knows just how much this medal would mean,” said the 21-year-old forward.
“Korea Republic and Japan were co-hosts at the 2002 World Cup and we respect each other’s football,” he went on. “Rivalry doesn’t translate as hatred, but it does mean competing against each other with hard work and fair play. We’re going to combine our talent and our hard work out on the pitch to try and beat them. In football, that’s how you show respect for your opponents.”
The Korea Republic No9 – alongside his fellow Olympic squad members such as Arsenal’s Park Chuyoung, Ki Sungyeung of Celtic Glasgow and Augsburg’s Koo Jacheol – is part of a trend that has both helped the progress of the South Korean game as well as promoting even more growth in the future.
“South Korea have a number of players in Europe now, as do Japan,” he said, as the interview concluded. “Our generation is more international and global, and that is starting to prove that East Asian nations are mature enough to compete with sides from other continents.”