BUSAN -- Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Hwang In-beom scored a free kick as South Korea squeezed past Hong Kong 2-0 to open an East Asian men's football tournament at home on Wednesday.
FC Tokyo midfielder Na Sang-ho headed home an insurance goal in the second half, helping South Korea take their first match of the East Asian Football Federation E-1 Football Championship at Busan Asiad Main Stadium in Busan, 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
South Korea, world No. 41, are trying to win their third straight EAFF title, but the narrow win over the 139th-ranked team won't inspire confidence in the famously fickle and demanding fans.
Coached by Paulo Bento, South Korea will face China on Sunday.
For the finale, the host country will be up against Japan next Wednesday. Both matches will start at Busan Asiad Main Stadium at 7:30 p.m.
Hong Kong made their intentions clear from the kickoff: Vastly overmatched in talent, they weren't going to try to counter South Korea punch for punch. They were instead happy to crowd their zone with as many as nine players at once, with Yapp Hung Fai in net and striker James Ha hanging around the midfield, where he was ready to leak out for fast break opportunities when the loose ball came his way.
Son Jun-ho and Hwang In-beom tested the Hong Kong defense with a couple of early shots. Ha did have one counterattack chance, as he snuck in behind the defense and rolled a shot just wide of the left post in the 27th minute.
South Korea had trouble establishing much of an offensive presence in the sea of red Hong Kong uniforms.
A deft free kick by Hwang finally put South Korea on the board in the 45th minute. Hwang banked his curling shot in off the left post, freezing Yapp in his spot.
It was South Korea's first goal in four matches. They had consecutive scoreless draws against North Korea and Lebanon in World Cup qualifying matches, and then suffered a 3-0 loss to Brazil in a friendly match last month.
Hong Kong continued to frustrate the South Korean attackers, who kept knocking on the door until it opened again in the 81st minute with Na's goal.
Midfielder Kim Bo-kyung received a corner kick from Hwang and set up Na for the header past Yapp that doubled the South Korean lead.
This is the third time South Korea has hosted the EAFF tournament and the Taeguk Warriors have never lifted the trophy on home soil. They finished in fourth place in 2005 and in third place in 2013.
Bento is without the services of Europe-based players, such as Tottenham Hotspur attacking ace Son Heung-min and budding FC Red Bull Salzburg star Hwang Hee-chan. The EAFF tournament isn't on the FIFA international match calendar, and clubs aren't obliged to release their South Korean players for this event.
On the 23-man team, Hwang is the only player based outside Asia. (Yonhap)