The thriving Korean film industry is known for its breathlessly suspenseful crime thrillers, with films such as The Chaser by Na Hongjin and Kim Jeewoon’s I Saw the Devil featuring near the top of most film buff’s lists.
Judging by their performances at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, there is no doubting that Korea Republic’s young players are well-versed in their country’s movie culture. Throughout the tournament they have given chase to their adversaries and have been involved in more than their fair share of plot twists. The latest of them came in the Hitchcockian finale to their quarter-final with Iraq, a cliffhanger that ended with their untimely demise.
“My players have been well-organised from start to finish,” said the Korea Republic director, ahem, coach Lee Kwangjong after his side’s agonising exit against the Lions of Mesopotamia. “Not many people believed in us but we proved we could go far. We’ve gradually improved and I can only thank my players for having believed in my ideas and for following them to the letter of the law.”
The Taeguk Warriors’ Turkish adventure got off to a dramatic start when they fell behind after just seven minutes of their opening match against unfancied Cuba. The Caribbean side’s hopes of a fairytale outcome were dashed by Kwon Changhoon and Ryu Seungwoo, who scored second-half goals to give the South Koreans the win. In their next group game, against Portugal, the Asian side did it the hard way again, twice coming from behind to score a 2-2 draw that all but secured their place in the next round.
That fightback was a turning point for Kwangjong’s players, who showed that they could hold their own against Europe’s big-name acts.
After playing a starring role in Sunday’s blockbuster against the Iraqis, Lee Gwanghun said: “We’ve shown we can challenge the best, including the European sides. That’s the main lesson here. We always think that they’re better than us, but we’ve shown that when we play as a team, we are as good as they are.”
Time for an intermission, as the first half of Korea Republic’s Turkish saga comes to a close with our heroes squeezing their way into the last 16 of the tournament.
It was then that the thrills and spills really started. In their Round-of-16 tie against Colombia, the men in red changed roles, switching from the hunted to the hunters. Leading for most of the game after Song Juhun’s 16th-minute opener, the Asians were pegged back in the fourth minute of stoppage time by Juan Quintero’s superbly flighted free-kick.
As the tension mounted in a gruelling period of extra-time, the Korea Republic defied expectations, hanging on by their fingernails to take the tie to penalties, where Lee Gwanghun’s held his nerve from the spot to set the seal on a gripping 8-7 shootout win. Cue scenes of joy among the Korea Republic contingent.
Yet more nerve-shredding drama was to come as this South Korean thriller hurtled towards its denouement. In Sunday’s quarter-final against Iraq the never-say-die East Asians clawed themselves level on no fewer than three occasions, tying the score at 3-3 in the 122nd minute of the match.
Jung Hyuncheol, the scorer of that miraculous third equaliser, took up the story: “When I came on I said to myself that I would have to fight to the death. I went crazy when I scored and it was the greatest moment of my career. We ended up losing but it was still an incredible tournament.”
The thriller had to come to an end, and as any connoisseur of South Koreans films will tell you, they are not known for their happy endings. The fall guy on this occasion was Lee Gwanghun, the hero of the hour just three days earlier against the Colombians. Grief-stricken after missing the decisive kick against the Iraqis, he said: “I am really sorry for my team-mates and my coach. We nearly made it. We were so close to reaching the semis for the first time in 30 years.”
While the Asian champions would no doubt have preferred a different outcome, they can leave Turkey safe in the knowledge that they turned in a memorable performance. That much was confirmed by the wily Park Jonghwan, the man who coached the country’s U-20s at Mexico 1983, the last time they reached the semi-finals: “Our players were good enough to go all the way this time, and I’m disappointed. I am proud of them, though, because they played a great match in the quarter-finals.”
The young Reds will next go for glory at the 2014 Asian Games, where a defiant Lee Gwanghun will be hoping for his big break: “I’m going to go home and train hard so I can win titles with this team. I want to be part of the side that takes part in the Asian Games next year and I’m also dreaming of the Olympic Games.”