Torn by apathy, ‘pearls in the dirt’ grow into South Korean soccer hope

After battling through apathy and other challenges at the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Under-20 World Cup, Kim Eun-Joong ended the tournament with a beautiful fourth-place finish.

The South Korean national team, led by Kim Eun-joong, lost 1-3 to Israel in the third-place match of the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup at the La Plata Stadium in Argentina on Wednesday (June 12).

At the FIFA-organized tournament, official prizes are awarded up to third place. South Korea, which finished fourth, will not receive even a small medal. Despite the lack of a medal, Kim deserves to be applauded for finishing in the top four in two consecutive tournaments, following his runner-up finish in Poland in 2019.

When he joined the national team, expectations were low. There were no stars like Lee Seung-woo (Suwon FC), Baek Seung-ho (Jeonbuk Hyundai), or Lee Kang-in (Mallorca) at the 2017 tournament. Unless you were a hardcore soccer fan, you didn’t even recognize most of the players’ names. Kim Yong-hak (Portimonense), who plays in Europe, and Bae Joon-ho, a regular for Daejeon Hana Citizen, were the only players whose names were recognized.

Kim didn’t get frustrated. In fact, he used the indifference as an opportunity to build a stronger team.

The unknown players were reborn as ‘pearls in the dirt’ through this tournament. Kim Eun-joong-ho’s “captain” Lee Seung-won (Gangwon) is a prime example. Before this tournament, Lee hadn’t played in a single K League 1 match. This tournament has made him a new favorite to lead the future of Korean soccer.

Lee finished the tournament with seven offensive points (three goals and four assists). This is a new record for most offensive points by a South Korean player in a single men’s tournament organized by FIFA. The previous record was six (two goals, four assists) set by Lee Kang-in at the 2019 tournament in Poland. Lee led South Korea to a runner-up finish and was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s MVP.

Lee contributed an offensive point in nearly every game, starting with a goal and an assist in the first group game against France (2-1 win). Only in the final group game against the Gambia, which ended 0-0, did he not record a goal or an assist.

At the end of the tournament, he was honored with the Bronze Shoe. He was recognized as the third best player of the tournament. The Golden 메이저사이트 Ball went to Cesare Cassaday (Italy), who scored seven goals, and the Silver Ball to Alan Maturo (Uruguay).

Lee, who captained the team and provided quiet leadership at the center of the squad, said, “It’s been a tough journey for a year and a half. I’m grateful to the players who did a great job and the coaches who gave me good guidance on the way to the quarterfinals,” he said. “I’m happy to have a good title (of most offensive points), so I’ll show more progress in the future.”

Lee wasn’t the only “pearl in the rough” at the tournament. Lee Young-joon (Gimcheon), a 190-centimeter striker, scored goals against France and Ecuador and has been touted as the next big attacking talent. He used his height to score a header against France, and then showed off his scoring touch and skill with a non-stop right-footed shot against Ecuador.

Flanker Bae Jun-ho also made his presence felt at the tournament. Standing at 6-foot-2, Bae’s athletic build, speed, and individualism made a strong impression in the semifinals against Italy. Although his team lost, the way he boldly broke through against the Italians was refreshing to watch. The Italian coach even named him as one of the most impressive players in the post-match interview.

In addition, Choi Seok-hyun (Dankook University), a “goal-scoring defender” who scored two goals with a header despite not being tall at 178 cm, Kim Jun-hong (Gimcheon), a goalkeeper who made dazzling saves at crucial moments, and Kim Ji-soo (Seongnam), a center back who is rumored to be playing for Brentford in the English Premier League, also established themselves as the future of Korean football through this tournament.

Of course, a harsh reality awaits these players once the dreamy time is over. When they return to their clubs, they’ll have to fight for a starting spot again. In that sense, the real football life of the “Little Taeguk Warriors” is just beginning, and the experience of the U-20 World Cup quarterfinals will be an important nourishment for them to grow to greater heights.

“I didn’t get to play a lot of games with my team, so this experience was especially valuable,” said Kim Jun-hong, a junior defender. “I was able to improve a lot personally, and I think it’s more important how I do it in the future.”

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