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[World Cup] Factors for South Korean team in World Cup

The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 kicked off Sunday, and the South Korean national team is now putting the final touches ahead of its first game against Uruguay on Thursday.

South Korea faces an uphill battle with powerhouses like Portugal and Uruguay in the same group, who are widely considered contenders for the coveted World Cup. Ghana is hardly a pushover either, despite being the lowest FIFA-ranked team of the group at No. 61, with stars like Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey in the mix.

Koreans, of course, have their own superstar in Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min, the winner of last season’s Golden Boot for the English Premier League, but Son is still recovering from a face injury he suffered earlier this month.

Following are a few key factors for South Korean supporters to watch out for in this year’s World Cup.

The South Korean national soccer team poses with Jungkook (front center) of BTS at the Al Egla training facility in Doha, Qatar, Saturday. The K-pop sensation performed at the opening ceremony for the FIFA World Cup Qatar on Sunday. (Yonhap)
The South Korean national soccer team poses with Jungkook (front center) of BTS at the Al Egla training facility in Doha, Qatar, Saturday. The K-pop sensation performed at the opening ceremony for the FIFA World Cup Qatar on Sunday. (Yonhap)

Son’s condition

The South Korean team has remained mum about the exact condition of the team's captain Son, who is arguably the nation’s best asset in the world of soccer and whose absence would be devastating for the team. Son suffered a fracture around his left eye during a UEFA Champions League match against Marseille on Nov. 1, when he collided with opposing defender Chancel Mbemba.

Son has been adamant that he will push through the injury to play for his country during the World Cup, but it remains unclear if he will be able to play in the Uruguay match or how effective he will be.

The opening match will be held at the Education City Stadium at Al Rayyan, Qatar on 4 p.m. local time, Thursday, which will be 10 p.m. in Korea.

Son Heung-min, captain of the South Korean national soccer team, trains ahead of the World Cup at the Al Egla training facility in Doha, Qatar, Saturday. (Yonhap)
Son Heung-min, captain of the South Korean national soccer team, trains ahead of the World Cup at the Al Egla training facility in Doha, Qatar, Saturday. (Yonhap)

Strong opponents in Group H

Without Son, South Korea, which ranks No. 28, will be severely outgunned against the dominant Portugal and Uruguay, which come in a No. 9 and No. 14, respectively.

Rankings aside, the two are picked by several pundits as dark horse teams in the tournament, and are clear favorites to advance to the knockout round.

Key players of Portugal include Joao Cancelo, Bernardo Silva and Cristiano Ronaldo, who is seeking to become the first men’s player to score a goal at five World Cups.

The Portugal national team trains at Shahaniya Sports Club in Al Samriya, northwest of Doha, Qatar, on Sunday, ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. (AFP-Yonhap)
The Portugal national team trains at Shahaniya Sports Club in Al Samriya, northwest of Doha, Qatar, on Sunday, ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. (AFP-Yonhap)
Players of Uruguay take part in a training session at the Al Ersal training ground in Doha on Saturday, ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. (AFP-Yonhap)
Players of Uruguay take part in a training session at the Al Ersal training ground in Doha on Saturday, ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. (AFP-Yonhap)

Uruguay is also expected make a splash on the world stage. While the country has not won the tournament since 1950, the team that went to the quarterfinals in the last World Cup has a strong squad, with likes of Edinson Cavani, Darwin Nunez and Federico Valverde.

Ghana has not had a prior major World Cup success and did not qualify in 2018, but the team has a solid squad around captain Andre Ayew. But their Achilles' heel is the inexperience: outside of Andre and his brother Jordan Ayew, the majority of the team has little international experience.

Ghana players celebrate a goal during a friendly soccer match against Switzerland in Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates on Thursday. (AFP-Yonhap)
Ghana players celebrate a goal during a friendly soccer match against Switzerland in Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates on Thursday. (AFP-Yonhap)

For South Koreans, Ghana is a necessary team to beat to keep alive the fleeting hope to survive the group stage and move on. Outside of Son, Kim Min-jae of the Serie A club Napoli has shown a solid performance as a defender recently, winning the Italian Footballers’ Association’s Player of the Month honor for October.

South Korea and Ghana will face off at 4 p.m. local time on Nov. 28, or 10 p.m. in Korea, at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan.

Drama of the group stage

While South Korea’s chance of surviving the group stage is not high, the World Cup has always been built for drama and shocking upsets. This was evident more than ever when South Korea unexpectedly beat Germany in the last match of the group stage in the 2018 World Cup, knocking the then-defending champion out of the event.

Fans here are hoping that Son -- who scored the second goal of that game to cap off the improbable 2-0 victory -- will be able to lead the Korean squad to greater success in Qatar.

Of all the matches, local fans most look forward to that against Portugal, the strongest team in Group H, with Ronaldo, the lethal forward of Manchester United.

Ronaldo’s reputation among Korean fans is quite controversial after his 2019 “no-show” incident, in which the player did not compete in an exhibition game between Italy’s Juventus -- for whom he played at that time -- and South Korea’s K-League All Star team. This sparked nationwide furor as it was advertised that Ronaldo would play at least 45 minutes, leading the sellout crowd to boo the star and chant his rival Lionel Messi’s name in protest.

Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo takes part in a training session at Shahaniya Sports Club in Al Samriya, northwest of Doha, Qatar, Sunday, ahead of the World Cup. (AFP-Yonhap)
Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo takes part in a training session at Shahaniya Sports Club in Al Samriya, northwest of Doha, Qatar, Sunday, ahead of the World Cup. (AFP-Yonhap)

South Korea and Portugal will play each other at 6 p.m. local time on Dec. 2, which means midnight in Korea, in their last game of the group stage. This is the first time the two teams are meeting at the World Cup since South Korea beat Portugal 1-0 in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup, knocking the country out before South Korea would go on what remains its best run, to the semifinal round.

Portugal is of course heavily favored to win, but it would be a cathartic experience for Korean fans if the team pulls off the upset at Education City Stadium at Al Rayyan.

At the same time of the South Korea vs. Portugal match, Ghana and Uruguay will play each other at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah. These teams have only faced each other once in the World Cup stage, in the quarterfinals of 2010, when Uruguay won via a penalty shootout.

During the fateful match in 2010, the teams were locked in a stalemate when Ghana was about to score a goal that would have made it the first African team to reach the semifinals. With the ball headed for the goal, Luis Suarez -- not a goalkeeper -- deliberately blocked the shot with his arm, leading to a missed penalty and eventually Ghana’s loss in the shootout to follow.

It remains to be seen if the Black Stars will be able to pull off revenge in the group finale, despite, like the South Koreans, being projected as clear underdogs.



By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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