Members of the South Korean men's Olympic football jog on the field at Kang Chang-hak Stadium in Seogwipo, Jeju Island, last Wednesday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Korea Football Association)
And there will be 18.
That's the size of the South Korean men's football roster for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Head coach Kim Hak-bum will get a couple of opportunities to test Olympic hopefuls starting Saturday, when the first of two tuneup matches against Ghana will be played in Jeju Island.
The kickoff is 7 p.m. at Jeju World Cup Stadium in the city of Seogwipo.
Kim called up 28 players for his training camp: three goalkeepers, 10 defenders, eight midfielders and seven forwards. While the typical Olympic men's football tournament is open to players 23 and younger, the age limit has been lifted by one year for this year because the Tokyo Olympics got postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The roster crunch won't be as simple as cutting 10 players from the current camp. All teams at the Olympics can each name three players over the age limit. That leaves just 15 spots up for grabs for the under-24 group this time.
There are also U-24 stars who were called up to the senior national team instead for World Cup qualifying matches. The likes of Won Du-jae, a versatile midfielder who can also handle centerback duties, and wingers Lee Dong-gyeong and Song Min-kyu will merit Olympic consideration when the time comes for Kim to set his roster.
The internal roster battle has been predictably heated, though players have put on a brave face and spoken about embracing the challenge and looking to use this opportunity to grow further as players.
The camp squad features three players who ply their trade in Europe: Lee Kang-in of Valencia CF, Jeong Woo-yeong of SC Freiburg and Lee Seung-woo of Portimonense.
Coach Kim has said club affiliations alone won't guarantee roster spots at the Olympics and said he didn't just say it to sound as though he were giving domestic-based players a fair chance.
Of the trio, Lee Seung-woo, 23, barely played for his Portuguese club and the former FC Barcelona prospect will have a lot to prove in these two upcoming matches. Lee Kang-in, the youngest player at camp at 20, has long surpassed Seung-woo as the country's top U-23 talent and seems to be a no-brainer choice. Jeong has offensive upside that should make him one of the final 18.
South Korea will face Romania, Honduras and New Zealand in the group stage at the Olympics. Ghana, who just missed out on qualifying out of Africa, got pounded by Japan 6-0 in a friendly match last Saturday, prompting pundits to question if Ghana would be a suitable sparring partner for South Korea ahead of the Olympics.
South Korean players have said they will still have to respect Ghana, adding that Japan just dominated the match and Ghana didn't play as poorly as the score indicated.
Ghana had a bit of a COVID-19 scare during their trip to Japan. One player tested positive for the virus upon arriving there on June 2. That player was held out of the lineup against Japan and will not join his team in South Korea.
The Korea Football Association said Ghana will arrive at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, around 2 p.m. Thursday. The team's 18 players and 14 members of the staff will be tested for the virus and will remain in quarantine until they receive their results Friday morning. Once negative results are in, they will then hop over to Jeju Island.
The South Korean team has been staying in its bubble in Jeju since May 31. Every member of the team tested negative for the virus before the camp opened. They had another test earlier Thursday and will get their results Friday.
In case of a positive test among players, the infected player will be isolated and the rest of the team will be tested immediately. Only those who have tested negative will be allowed to dress for the matches. (Yonhap)