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S. Korean soccer sees tears, gold in roller-coaster 2018 season

South Korean soccer experienced yet another roller-coaster ride this year as it saw tears, gold and a coaching change under fans’ big expectations.

The 2018 season is technically not finished for the South Korean men’s national soccer team as it awaits a friendly match against Saudi Arabia in Abu Dhabi on Monday. Still, the Taeguk Warriors went through enough competitions this year to give fans a full plate of ups and downs.

South Korea began this year with tuneup matches for the 2018 FIFA World Cup with head coach Shin Tae-yong.

Shin’s side beat Moldova 1-0 in Turkey on Jan. 27 to open their 2018 campaign. South Korea then went on to play a 2-2 draw with Jamaica and defeated Latvia 1-0, but the results weren’t considered promising to soccer fans as the opponents were weak compared with those at the World Cup.

South Korea picked up its first loss of 2018 on March 24 against Northern Ireland in Belfast after dropping a friendly match 2-1. Three days later, it fell to Poland 3-2 and suffered consecutive losses.

South Korea ended the losing momentum with a 2-0 win over Honduras at home on May 28 but couldn’t ease fans’ concerns for the World Cup. In their last home friendly before the World Cup, South Korea took a disappointing 3-1 loss against Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 1, holding its send-off ceremony in a wary atmosphere.

South Korean fans became more anxious when they heard the national team played to a 0-0 draw with Bolivia and suffered a 2-0 loss to Senegal just before the World Cup.

And their concerns turned out to be a reality at the World Cup in Russia, where South Korea aimed to reach the round of 16.

In the Group F campaign, South Korea dropped the opening match 1-0 against Sweden and took a 2-1 defeat against Mexico. Head coach Shin and players like Jang Hyun-soo, who made critical mistakes in the first two group stage matches, were already then public enemies in South Korea.

But no one knew that the loss against Mexico would be South Korea’s last defeat in 2018.

The South Korean national soccer team poses for a photo at Incheon Airport before flying to the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 23. (Yonhap)
The South Korean national soccer team poses for a photo at Incheon Airport before flying to the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 23. (Yonhap)

At that time, most fans feared that South Korea may wrap up the World Cup journey without getting a single point as its next opponent was none other than Germany, the defending champion and then the world’s top ranked team.

But South Korea shocked the world on June 27 by knocking out Germany 2-0 with two second-half stoppage time goals. It was a historic win and South Korean fans later voted the World Cup clash against Germany as the match of the year.

Despite the stunning win, South Korea cried in the end because it failed to advance to the round of 16.

Through the World Cup, South Korean players like Jo Hyeon-woo, who was the team’s No. 1 goalkeeper, rose to international stardom, while Son Heung-min proved his attacking prowess by scoring two of the team’s three goals at the World Cup.

The match against Germany was also Shin’s final match with South Korea. The Korea Football Association decided not to extend its contract with Shin, who first took the helm in July 2017.

The winning energy against Germany apparently passed on to South Korea’s under-23 team at the 18th Asian Games in Indonesia, which included three overage players: Son, Jo and Hwang Ui-jo.

The U-23 team was led by Kim Hak-bum, who took charge of the team from February. But despite little time for preparation, South Korea defended the Asian Games crown by beating archrival Japan 2-1 in extra time on Sept. 1, and the players earned exemptions from full-time military service.

Through the Asian Games, Hwang became South Korea’s reliable striker option. He was the top scorer at the Asian Games with nine goals in seven matches.

During the Asian Cup, South Korea hired Paulo Bento as head coach for the senior men’s soccer team and declared a new start.

The Portuguese was officially announced as the new head coach on Aug. 17 after signing a contract that runs through the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, should South Korea qualify for the tournament.

With expectations high from South Korea’s Asian Games gold medal run, Bento successfully took that momentum to the senior level.

He made his South Korea coaching debut on Sept. 7 with a 2-0 win over Costa Rica at home and had a scoreless draw against Chile four days later. Bento’s South Korea then beat Uruguay 2-1 and played to a 2-2 draw with Panama.

For the 2019 Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup tune-up, Bento’s side traveled to Australia in November. South Korea played to a 1-1 draw against defending Asian Cup champions Australia and demolished Uzbekistan 4-0.

Overall in 2018, South Korea has collected seven wins, five draws and six losses. But none of those losses came after the World Cup. Under Bento, South Korea is on a six-game undefeated run with three wins and three draws.

Meanwhile, on the women’s side, South Korea also produced meaningful results this year. Led by head coach Yoon Duk-yeo, the Taeguk Ladies took fifth place at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan in April and secured a spot at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

In August, the women’s team took a bronze medal at the Asian Games in Indonesia by crushing Taiwan 4-0. It was South Korea’s third straight bronze medal at the Asian Games.

Yoon’s side marked eight wins, four draws and two losses in 2018. The two losses came from South Korea’s 3-0 defeat to Canada at the Algarve Cup, a 12-team invitational tournament in Portugal, on March 5 and a 2-1 defeat to Japan in an Asian Games semifinal match.

At the youth level, South Korean men ended as the runners-up at the AFC U-19 Championship in Indonesia in November. South Korea also suffered a group stage exit with one draw and two losses at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay. (Yonhap)