|South Korea's Cho Young-kwang, left, battles for the ball with Gambia's Mamin Sanyang during a FIFA U-20 World Cup Group F match at the Malvinas Argentinas stadium in Mendoza, Argentina, Sunday. / AP-Yonhap|
By John Duerden
South Korean soccer has been flexing its muscles at home and abroad in the past week or so. The young Taeguk Warriors have made the knockout stages of the U-20 World Cup, which is taking place in Argentina while domestic organizations have been standing up for local clubs.
The country has a good record in the U-20 World Cup, reaching the final of the last edition in 2019 (there was no 2021 competition due to the pandemic) where they lost to Ukraine. This time under the leadership of coach Kim Eun-jung, the Reds picked up an impressive 2-1 win over France in the opening game. The European team spent much of the game on top but was caught out with the perfect counter-attack that was finished by Lee Seung-won and then Korea moved further ahead in the second half. France pulled a goal back to ensure a tense finish but the game ended with three points.
There was some disappointment as the second game against 10-man Honduras ended 2-2 but a place in the second round was clinched even before the final group game against Gambia. It remains to be seen which team will be the next opponent, but Korea will be looking forward to trying to match the class of 2019 and go as far as possible.
Back home, however, this summer has been shaping up to become a busy one in terms of big European teams heading to the Land of the Morning Calm. Manchester City has just been crowned English Premier League champion and might become Europe's top dog later in June. Pep Guardiola's men will meet Atletico Madrid in Seoul in July. Scottish champion Celtic, which is led in attack by Korean striker Oh Hyeon-gyu, will meet Wolverhampton Wanderers of the English Premier League and Hwang Hee-chan. Roma is also due for a visit to take on Incheon United.
The biggest story is that there are two European teams with Korean players who may not be coming this summer. Kim Min-jae's Napoli and Lee Kang-in's Real Mallorca had arranged two games on June 8 and 10. The second game could not go ahead as there were K League games taking place on the same date.
The Korea Football Association asked the promoters to either pay a deposit or sign a contract that promised compensation if star players, assumed to be the Koreans especially, did not play. This was all the result of a match that took place in 2019, when there was a lot of controversy and bad feeling as Juventus came to Seoul and did not play Cristiano Ronaldo. The game had been heavily promoted off the back of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner but the Portuguese international stayed on the bench for the full 90 minutes, leaving many fans furious.
With the promoters unwilling or unable to make those commitments, the game is not going to go ahead. It is a sign of the authorities doing what needed to be done to protect the local league in the face of foreign incursions. Now is the turn for the young players to go and make waves in Argentina.