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Striker becomes fan favorite in South Korea's gold medal run

Before the 18th Asian Games, Hwang Ui-jo was not a fan favorite. 

But now at the end, he has become a hero for South Korea.

South Korea successfully defended their Asiad men's football title on Saturday after beating Japan 2-1, thanks to goals from Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan. 

Although he didn't score a goal in the final, Hwang was still pivotal for South Korea's gold medal run at the 18th Asian Games.

He completed the competition as the top scorer with nine goals, including two hat tricks.  

Hwang Ui-jo (Yonhap)
Hwang Ui-jo (Yonhap)

It was a performance for the history books. No South Korean man had scored two hat tricks in an international competition until Hwang did at the Asian Games.

For Hwang, his only regret would probably be not breaking the South Korean scoring record at a single Asian Games. He was two goals shy of matching Hwang Sung-hong's record at Hiroshima 1994.

Hwang, 26, joined the under-23 team for the Asian Games as a "wild card." The men's football competition at Asian Games is open to those who are aged 23 or under, but teams can field up to three overage players known as wild cards.

At first, Hwang was considered a controversial pick for the Asian Games. While some fans doubted Hwang's talent with his mediocre performance in recent seasons in the K League, others said that he earned selection through his close relationship with head coach Kim Hak-bum. Hwang and Kim had previously worked together at Seongnam FC.

But he soon silenced his critics. He first scored a hat trick against Bahrain to help South Korea's 6-0 win in their Asian Games opener. He was then the only scorer in South Korea's shocking 2-1 loss to Malaysia.

Hwang's goal-poaching instincts got better and better. He helped South Korea to reach the quarterfinals by scoring the first goal in his team's 2-0 win over Iran and bagged his second hat trick of the competition in South Korea's 4-3 win over Uzbekistan in the semifinals.

Against Japan in the final, Hwang was still a lethal weapon for South Korea. He posted South Korea's first shot on target in the 23rd minute with a left-footed strike, although it was stopped by Ryosuke Kojima.

In extra time, he had couple of chances to put his name on the score sheet with his shots in the 105th and in the 108th. With Japan chasing 2-1, Hwang was eventually replaced for defender Hwang Hyun-soo in the 118th and was able to smile at the end. 

With his impressive Asiad performance, he was listed on the South Korean men's senior football team roster for September friendlies by new head coach Paulo Bento last month.

It's the first time since October 2017 that he has been selected for the senior national team.

Now proving his attacking prowess in Asia, Hwang's next task is to show that he is also useful for the senior side. Hwang has so far netted only one goal in 11 appearances for the senior national team.

Hwang was a grateful man after the gold medal match, thanking everyone from his teammates to the coaches and members on the support staff.

"This has been a tough journey, and everyone stuck together," he said. "I didn't do this alone. Everyone had a part in this. I was so exhausted during the match for some reason, but my teammates picked up the slack for the win." (Yonhap)