South Korea's four-year quest to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia concluded with a stunning 2-0 win over defending champions Germany on Wednesday. Despite the historic win, South Korea couldn't smile as they failed to make the round of 16.
The Taeguk Warriors ended up in third place in Group F. Before meeting Germany, they suffered a 1-0 loss to Sweden and fell 2-1 to Mexico.
Considering what they've gone through for the last four years, it was a result that disappointed both players and fans.
South Korea's road to Russia 2018 started with appointment of German tactician Uli Stielike in September 2014. Under Stielike, South Korea easily passed the second round of the Asian World Cup qualifying campaign with a perfect record of eight wins, scoring 27 goals and conceding one.
However, their road to Russia 2018 turned bumpy when the third round of the Asian World Cup qualifying tournament started in September 2016.
Competing with Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan, China and Qatar in Group A, South Korea aimed for at least a second place finish since the top two performers can advance directly to Russia 2018.
South Korea, however, struggled -- especially in away matches.
Following a shocking 3-2 loss to Qatar in June 2017, South Korea declared the end of Stielike's era with only two matches left in the third qualifying round.
Accepting a firefighter role, Shin Tae-yong, who previously led South Korea's under-23 and under-20 sides, took the charge of the national team about a month after Stielike's exit. The Korea Football Association then said Shin was the right man since he didn't need a long time to understand the team, having served as Stielike's assistant before.
When Shin was hired, South Korea were barely staying in second place with only one point above Uzbekistan. It wasn't pretty, but Shin did manage to send South Korea to the World Cup after earning two scoreless draws with Iran and Uzbekistan in September 2017.
Shin had no time spare as he was given less than one year to take his team for the 2018 World Cup. After sending his country to its 10th World Cup, Shin started to test players and tactics.
Shin's team, however, failed to produce promising results in their World Cup preparations. In their first two friendly matches in October 2017, South Korea went down 4-2 to Russia, while suffering a 3-1 loss to Morocco.
Shin started to change the public atmosphere from November, starting with a 2-1 win over Colombia and a 1-1 draw with Serbia at home.
South Korea's 2018 World Cup hopes took a big hit in December, when they were drawn into the same group with defending champions Germany, Latin American powerhouses Mexico and European dark horses Sweden, who edged teams like the Netherlands and Italy to reach the 32-team tournament.
Shin, however, moved on, focusing on finding players who can best carry out his tactics. The East Asian Football Federation E-1 Football Championships, a four-nation regional tournament that features North Korea, Japan and China, and friendly matches in Antalya, Turkey, with Moldova, Jamaica and Latvia were all a test bed for Shin's plan for the World Cup.
From November 2017 to February, South Korea collected five wins and three draws, and Shin appeared to be on track for Russia 2018, with 4-4-2 formation starting to become their Plan A and 3-5-2 setup rising as their Plan B.
However, fans started to raise their eyebrows after South Korea suffered a 2-1 loss to Northern Ireland and fell 3-2 to Poland in March friendly matches with poor defense.
With the deadline for final World Cup roster approaching, South Korea also saw some bad luck as some core players -- center back Kim Min-jae and midfielders Kwon Chan-hoon -- sustained injuries and were declared unfit for the tournament.
On May 14, South Korea unveiled their 26-man roster and decided to cut three players after playing two tune-up matches at home.
South Korea beat Honduras 2-0 on May 28, but Bosnia and Herzegovina spoiled their send-off ceremony for the World Cup as the national team fell 3-1 on June 1.
South confirmed their 23-man roster before flying to their pre-World Cup training camp in Leogang, Austria, on June 3. Lee Chung-yong, Kim Jin-su and Kwon Kyung-won were unlucky players, while three national team newcomers -- Lee Seung-woo, Moon Seon-min and Oh Ban-suk -- all survived the roster cut.
South Korea had two friendly matches in Austria, but didn't produce promising results. They had a scoreless draw against Bolivia on June 7 and took a 2-0 defeat against Senegal on June 11.
By then, expectations were already low for Shin's side and fans concerns turned into reality.
South Korea went all-in for their Group F opener against Sweden in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, on June 18, but showed dull performance with no shots on target.
Son Heung-min notched South Korea's first goal of the tournament against Mexico in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday. But Mexico had already bagged two goals through a penalty kick and a classic counter attack, and Son's goal in the second half stoppage time wasn't enough to save South Korea.
South Korea, however, made up all of their previous losses against world's top-ranked Germany in Kazan. Maybe, what they planned was to save the best for last.
In a match tagged as "David versus Goliath," South Korea beat the odds by taking a 2-0 win, with two second half stoppage goals from Kim Young-gwon and Son. A win itself was something to cheer about, but no South Korea player smiled when the final whistle was blown. They knew that even the historic win wasn't enough to put them in the round of 16, their original goal for the 2018 World Cup.
After all, it was a bitter end for South Korea's long journey to the 2018 World Cup. The players, however, can at least keep their heads up on their way to home, because for some fans, beating Germany would have been a more difficult task than reaching the knockout stage. (Yonhap)