While Korea Republic forward Lee Keunho no doubt played over how his FIFA World Cup™ debut might pan out, it is unlikely he would have imagined it unfolding quite as it did. In a tight Group H opener against Russia, that ultimately ended 1-1, his role as goal-scoring substitute proved crucial for the Asian side, but he admitted to FIFA that he accepts luck played a starring role in his key cameo.
When the Sangju Sangmu forward stepped out on to the field, replacing Park Chuyoung, their Group H opener with Russia was deadlocked at 0-0, with both sides lacking in ideas. Having narrowly missed out on a spot at South Africa 2010, he has since been named as 2012 AFC Player of Year and was a key figure in qualifying, and was clearly keen to shine now his chance had arrived.
Keunho, with his burst of pace and lively endeavour in the heat of western Brazil, was a perfect fit for the game, and it took all of 12 minutes for coach Hong Myungbo to be proven right. Picking up the ball around the centre circle, the nippy attacker burst onwards at the retreating Russian rearguard, injecting the positivity and directness the Taeguk Warriors had at times been lacking.
However, with options available to him left and right, the 29-year-old looked to have spurned the opportunity as he hit a shot from 20-yards directly at experienced goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. Inexplicably though, it slipped through the Russian's fingers and over the line. The look of delight and disbelief on Keunho's face said it all.
“I've been waiting for this World Cup for so long, but I'd never thought I would even score. I think I was lucky, but it wasn't bad for a start from me,” he said after the game. “To be frank, I never thought it would go in because I shot it straight at the keeper. But during the warm up my efforts on goal weren't bad so I just went for it, and I was lucky.”
Four year wait for redemption
Arguably Keunho deserves chance to favour him now he has made to the World Cup. He, alongside current captain Koo Jacheol, was among the final three to be cut from the Korea Republic squad by Huh Jungmoo ahead of the tournament in South Africa, a fact which understandably stung for the 2012 AFC Champions League winner.
Now amongst the action he is intent to prove his own quality – and that of those plying their trade in his home continent as a whole. “I missed the World Cup four years ago, so I was eager to show my ability, even though I'm not playing in Europe,” the former man Gamba Osaka said. “I wanted to show all those watching that there are good players playing their football in Asia as well.”
Alexander Kerzhakov ultimately rescued a point for Russia, with a draw being far from a perfect result for either side after Belgium came from behind to beat Algeria earlier in the day, taking control of the group. Korea now need a win against Algeria to keep their hopes of reaching the knockout stages on track, and while Keunho realises they have work to do, he believes their level will have raised by 22 June.
“Tonight's result was a bit disappointing but I think we played as well as we had expected to,” he concluded. “Hopefully we'll be in a higher gear when we play Algeria and will be able to get ourselves a better result because of it.” While Keunho will hope to start that game, he might not be able to rely on lady luck a second time around, having cashed in most of his good fortune in his first outing at Brazil 2014.