SAO PAULO, Brazil -- South Korea’s slim chance of advancing to the round of 16 faded Thursday in Sao Paulo as a 10-man Belgium secured a late 1-0 victory over the Taeguk Warriors in their final group match.
Instead, Algeria earned its first-ever ticket to the knockout round by drawing 1-1 with Russia in Curitiba.
Belgian captain Jan Vertonghen, in for an injured Vincent Kompany, pounced on a rebound off goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu to score in the 78th minute -- the third straight game in which Belgium scored the winner in the last 20 minutes.
Korea will go home after its worst World Cup outing since 1998, when it drew 1-1 with Belgium and lost its two other group matches.
“We weren’t up to the standard. I think we weren’t good enough. But we nevertheless did our best,” head coach Hong Myung-bo said in a post-match press conference. “More than anything, I think it was important for our players to play on such a big stage and to gain the experience of this.”
Meanwhile, Belgium’s coach Marc Wilmots praised his team for the clean sheet and said they were “well equipped” to move on to the knockouts.
At the top of Group H, Belgium moves on to play Group G’s second team, the U.S., in Salvador on July 1. Algeria will play Germany in Porto Alegre on June 30.
“This is something we’ve been working on for the past 2 1/2 years, and to me, this feels very good,” Wilmots said. “We have fulfilled our mission with nine points, (which has) never happened to us. We’re ready to go to the quarterfinals, and then we’ll see. The rest is literature to me.”
Hong made two changes to his previous starting lineups, bringing on goalkeeper Kim for his sixth cap and Kim Shin-wook, who appeared in the second match with Algeria, in place of struggling forward Park Chu-young, who had only taken one shot in the previous two matches.
Wilmots, meanwhile, made seven changes to give his younger players some time on the field ahead of the knockout round.
Possession played out evenly throughout the first half, though eventually tipping toward Belgium as Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas put pressure down the left. After Mertens’ failed free kick in the first 10 minutes, he made an attempt in the area after 24 minutes off a pass from Mirallas, but shot too high. Mirallas again passed to an unmarked Mertens on the edge of the area 10 minutes later, but he blasted it high and wide.
Korea gained an advantage at the end of the first half when midfielder Steven Defour received a red card after smashing into Kim Shin-wook’s ankle in a tackle, leaving the Belgians to play the second half one man short.
Lee Keun-ho -- a substitute in the previous two games who scored Korea’s lone goal against Russia -- brought flair and energy to the front line in the second half, coming on for midfielder Han Kook-young to threaten the box several times.
A Belgian attack in the 58th minute threatened the goal, but Son Heung-min retook possession for Korea and sped down the field with Lee and Kim Shin-wook. He hit a speculative cross-cum-shot from the right, but it hit the crossbar.
Goalkeeper Kim blocked a shot in the 78th minute by second-half Belgian substitute Divock Origi, but Vertonghen took advantage of the rebound and scored the lone goal of the game.
After the final whistle, defender Kim Young-gwon lay motionless in the grass near the Korean goal as the team took in its defeat. The Taeguk Warriors then slowly turned to the 61,000 spectators, bowing to and applauding their fans.
Son, in tears, was among the last of the team to leave the pitch.
“People from our country came to cheer us on, but we were not able to show what we could do. I feel so sorry and heartbroken about it,” said the Bayer Leverkusen forward, who was named Man of the Match in Korea’s debut against Russia and scored in the team’s 4-2 defeat to Algeria. “I’ve seen again that there are many strong players in the World Cup. There will be many opportunities in the future and I will come back better prepared.”
Korea was the last Asian Football Confederation team to go home without a victory, with Japan, Iran and Australia having already left winless in the group stage.
“We can’t describe how frustrated we are at how the game ended,” captain Koo Ja-cheol said after the match. “We tried to hold on to those feelings to win, but came up with a poor result.”
Koo added that players had been suffering from outside pressure instead of focusing on their play in the run-up to the World Cup, and that they had little time to form cohesion.
“If we were to become ‘one,’ the team should have gone through the qualifying round together and learned more about our team culture,” he said. “This could have helped our team become stronger. We were under stress and external pressure most of the time.”
Korea had more shots both overall and on goal than Belgium and held more possession, but the offense repeatedly fumbled attacks and finished poorly.
Hong said the team played well in the first half, with chances to counterattack.
“And then when (Defour) got the red card, the situation changed and we became more aggressive,” he said, adding that the team began to concentrate too much on the center. “But if (the ball) had been mainly in the flanks, I believe that we would have been able to create more opportunities.”
Hong criticized himself for the team’s shortcomings, but said he was coming away from the World Cup with no regrets.
“All of our players did their utmost, they gave it their all. But I think that it was ... my failings as a coach that caused this result,” he said.
He said he did his personal best given his situation and was not dissatisfied with any of his players. Although he had led a dozen of the players to the bronze medal in the London Olympics, Hong had inherited this squad after it stumbled through qualifiers last year and, on his watch, stumbled through four losses in the six games leading up to Brazil.
He also called his defense talented even though they “crumbled” against Algeria, and expected them to become stronger players through their experiences in other leagues. He had started the same back four -- Yun Suk-young, Hong Jeong-ho, Kim Young-gwon and Lee Yong -- for all three matches.
This was Hong’s sixth World Cup, having played in four as a defender and served as an assistant coach in one. With the Asian Cup coming up in January, he declined to say whether he would stay in the job, but expressed his lasting commitment to the Taeguk Warriors.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future, but right now I am willing to accept whatever is given,” he said. “We started with this team and I believe we have to stay together. I want to be responsible for this team until the very end. That remains unchanged.”
The squad returns to base camp in Foz do Iguacu on Friday morning to recover before returning to Korea.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent
Grace Cho in Seoul contributed to this article. -- Ed.