By virtue of the stakes involved, World Cup finals are often tense, forgettable affairs. Fortunately, some do buck that trend and one such spectacular exception was witnessed six years ago today when the decisive match of the 2010 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup was played out in Trinidad and Tobago. Scintillating football, six spectacular goals and a shoot-out combined for thrilling entertainment, and the action culminated in Korea Republic winning their nation’s first world title before a captivated crowd.
England and Manchester United legend David Beckham was among the spectators in Port of Spain and, like those alongside him, he was wowed by the skill and spirit of a Taeguk Ladies side who twice came from behind to claim glory. This was a team no-one had tipped for the title; indeed, there wasn’t a single Korean journalist in Port of Spain to witness their historic coronation. Yet as Yeo Minji, winner of both the tournament’s top individual awards – the adidas Golden Ball and Golden Shoe – told FIFA.com this week, she and her team-mates were spurred on by such scepticism.
“We knew that nobody had expected us to go that far but that just gave us extra motivation to unite as a team and prove ourselves," she recalled. "Japan were a higher ranked team than us and had some good players, but we had our own strengths and did what it took - we just fought fearlessly.”
A reluctant heroineIt was this fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude that the team’s coach, Choi Duckjoo, credited afterwards as “the main reason” for his team’s success. “I can’t take the credit,” he added. “We won because I had the pleasure of coaching such a talented and hard-working group of players.”
Korea Republic’s humble coach had, though, played a part in the vital goal that made it 2-2 – a thundering long-range free-kick from captain Kim Areum – in first-half stoppage time. “I felt like I was going to score from that free-kick because I had hit the woodwork earlier in the half,” she told FIFA.com, reflecting on the most important strike of her career thus far. “I could also heard the coach from the bench telling me to free my mind and aim at the target, and that was what I did.”
Simple instructions, of course, and yet the pressure of the occasion can often render logic all but useless. The basic objective of hitting the target, even when the distance was 12 yards rather than the 35 from which Kim scored, proved beyond two of Japan’s players in the penalty shootout, and those failures left Korea Republic just one kick from history. It was at this tensest of moments that Jang Selgi, the squad’s youngest player, stepped forward to smash an impeccable penalty into the roof of the Japanese net. The execution was flawless and, seemingly, nerveless. Not, however, according to the player herself.
“Thinking back, it wasn't my turn to step up for our sixth penalty,” she said. “But it was down to sudden death and nobody was willing to take the responsibility. I was the youngest in the squad and I had no choice but to do as the older players told me to. Everyone was nervous at that moment, and I think I was lucky to beat the keeper.”
Presidential partyThough the manner of Japan’s defeat was heartbreaking, even Hiroshi Yoshida, the Little Nadeshiko’s crestfallen coach, was gracious enough to acknowledge the “bravery and spirit” of his team’s conquerors. Choi, for his part, could not contain his delight. “I’m in dreamland,” he enthused. “It makes the prize even more special because we had to fight so hard for it.”
And while the Korean media had been conspicuous by their absence in Port of Spain, they made up for that by descending en masse to cover the team’s triumphant return. It was then, at this heroines' homecoming in Seoul, that the scale of the team’s accomplishment became clear to Yeo.
“We had a small party in New York on the way home,” she explained, “but we didn’t realise what we had achieved until we arrived home. When we got to the airport, a massive contingent of media and fans were waiting for us to celebrate together. We were even invited to the Blue House (Korea Republic’s presidential office). That still remains a fond memory.”
Yeo and her colleagues had been well worthy of such fanfare. The question now, with another U-17 Women’s World Cup just days away, is whether another unheralded side can emerge to follow in those* Taeguk Ladies’ *history-making footsteps.