This past weekend brought down the curtain on the AFC Under 23 Championship. It was yet again a tournament of highs and ‘could have beens’ that were unfortunately brought crashing down to Earth by the now all too familiar under-achieving that has seemed to plague Korean national teams since those dizzy heights of 2002. In 2014 it was the abysmal World Cup campaign in Brazil which led to Hong Myung Bo resigning and candy stores the length and breadth of the country selling out. In 2015 it was a ‘hard luck’ story in Australia as Korea lost in the final of the Asian Cup to the hosts after snatching a last-gasp equalizer to take it to extra-time. 2016 would see the “rising stars” given their chance to shine and show that they could be a generation capable of living up to the lofty expectations of a country which only ever really seems interested in their national team the moment just before they falter and fail.
Korea were drawn in Group C along with Iraq, Uzbekistan and Yemen and were hotly tipped to emerge unscathed from the group. A 2-1 victory in the opening game against Uzbekistan in which Pohang’s Moon Chang Jin would bag himself a brace was followed by a 5-0 mauling of Yemen. That match would see Kwon Chang Hoon continue his good form of last season with Suwon Bluewings as he fired Korea into a 3-0 lead by half-time. Second half goals form Ryu Seung Woo (Bayer Leverkusen) and Kim Seung Jin (Ulsan) would be the icing on the cake. Korea at this point were living up to their pre-tournament billing as one of the favourites and in Moon and Kwon had two players who looked hungry. The final match of Group C would be against Iraq to decide who topped the table. Korea led for most of the match through a Kim Hyun (Jeju United) strike but as has been all too common of late that result would be snatched from them at the death as Iraq grabbed an equalizer. It wouldn’t alter the final standings in any way as that Yemen result had made sure that Korea would have the better goal difference but it did cast some doubt on the young team’s ability to see out a result.
A rather surprising goalless draw with Jordan had seen the Olyroos (I really hate the names Australians give to all their sporting teams) eliminated and Korea would instead face Jordan in the Quarter-finals who on paper really seemed the easiest of the two opponents. And for 45 mins is looked exactly like the pundits had called this one correct. Korea bossed the midfield and held a quite incredible 62% of possession to match their 1-0 lead when the HT whistle sounded, that first half goal coming courtesy off Moon Chang Jin again. The second half started much as how the previous 45 had gone and Korea really should have wrapped the game up easily. Unfortunately Jordan had other ideas and quite like the drunk who wakes up on the subway only to be spurred into a second wind they suddenly realized the match wasn’t over. This may have had something to do with the increasingly unstable display of Gu Sung Yun who was beginning to resemble said subway drunk the more the match went on. Suddenly where there had been steel in the middle of the park there were gaps, where passes had been sprayed across the pitch now they couldn’t find a teammate with a satnav. It was becoming all too familiar a scene as the match had a draw and extra time written all over it. It’s in games like this that you need a hero and Korea soon found one in the shape of the Iranian referee. A rather speculative overhead kick had fallen to a Jordanian teammate 6 yards out and he was left with the simplest of finishes. As the players turned away in celebration and we headed for another 30 mins the referee blew his whistle and ruled offside. On first viewing it was a poor call on replays it was criminal. There was no doubt the goal should have stood and the decision seemed to knock the stuffing out of Jordan. The match was played out and Korea finished the victors and booked a place in the semi-final against hosts Qatar but again as with the Iraq match chinks were beginning to show in their armour.
The victory over Jordan had set up a match against Qatar who had sent North Korea packing at the QF stage. As the AFC had decided to introduce Olympic qualification for the top 3 finishing teams it added an extra dimension as victory would ensure the chance to represent your country in Rio and that all important (and often more important) chance to gain exemption from military service. By the time the game kicked off both teams knew that Japan awaited them in the final and is there really any other motivation that a Korean team needs. The match would finish 3-1 to Korea and “haniljeon” (Korea v Japan) would indeed be on the menu. That scoreline would suggest that Korea had steadied the ship and were back on course to lift the trophy but that really wasn’t quite the case. Once again they would take the lead, Ryu Seung Woo with the opener, only to throw it away. 1-1 with only a few minutes plus injury time left on the clock it looked like both teams were heading towards extra time and ultimately the lottery of a penalty shootout but Kwon Chang Hoon and Moon Chang Jin had other ideas as first Kwon (89) and then Moon (90+2) scored to put Korea in the final and ultimately on ‘The Road To Rio”. It was a crazy final few minutes and the scenes at FT summed up just how much it meant to the players. They were in the final, they were on their way to Rio and they had the chance to beat Japan to win the tournament.
Both teams had already achieved their minimum goal which was to qualify for this year’s Olympic Games in Rio and as important as that was the fact that it was your greatest rivals that stood in your way of being named Champions of Asia gave the match more than just a little spice. Back when I was growing up watching football in Glasgow a common catchphrase of the time was “football is a game of two halves” and the 2016 AFC U23 final was exactly that and then some. I managed to secure one of those unlikeliest of items, a free-pass to watch football on a Saturday night. And so it was with a few cold ones that I sat down to watch what I hoped would be an epic match or least just a Korea win. The first point of note was that Japan weren’t wearing their traditional blue shirts and had opted for their second colours. It might have been this very decision which led to them looking like a pale shadow of the team that had won all five of their matches in the tournament conceding only 2 goals in the process. Again, like the Jordan match, Korea looked the hungrier of the two sides and it was no real surprise when they took the lead and no surprise that it was than man Kwon again. Sure the goal was a tad fortuitous as the ball took a deflection on its way passed the keeper but they were the better team. HT came and went, as did the Merrydown Cider I had purchased, and as I was choosing between terrible Korean beer or worse Korean beer the second half started. It took all of two minutes for Korea to double their lead as Jin Seong Uk looked to have put the match beyond Japan with a quite simply beautiful turn and shot in the box which left the Japanese keeper flat-footed. Korea continued to attack sensing that Japan were there for the taking but somehow passed up chance after chance with Kwon missing an easy header among them.
It was all going according to plan for Shin Tae Yong and his team but as is often the case in football that is when the carpet is pulled from under your feet. It all started with a substitution as Sanfreece Hiroshima starlet Takuma Asano was brought on with half an hour left on the clock. To say the switch was a pivotal moment is an understatement. Within six minutes of him coming on he had pulled a goal back with a clinical finish, chipping over the keeper after being put through 1-on-1. If that was the beginning of a crack then what came next truly shattered the team. Straight from kick-off Japan won the ball and raced down the left, and with one flash of a head from an inch-perfect cross and it was 2-2. It had taken Japan all of 90 secs to not just claw the match back but put themselves firmly in the driving seat.
That second goal seemed to suck all the confidence out of Korea and it didn’t really come as a surprise when Japan took the lead with ten minutes to go. And of course who else would it be but Asano again. Korea had been on the attack when they lost the ball which was worked through to Asano on the edge of the box and, again, 1-on-1 with the keeper he made no mistake. 3-2 Japan and it was all over and ultimately the age-old problem of Korea being unable to kill teams off would yet again lead them to defeat and disappointment.
And so the tournament ended with an apologetic bow and now thoughts turn to the summer and to Rio. Losing to your rivals is never good, being Scottish I know the feeling only too well, but the manner in which this latest defeat was delivered was extra tough to take. But it shouldn’t all be doom and gloom. The performances of Kwon Chang Hoon and Moon Chang Jin were highlights and given that Son Heung Min will almost certainly be added to the squad for Rio they might just be in with a chance of coming home with a medal.