The South Korea Under-20 men’s national soccer team ended the FIFA U-20 World Cup in fourth place. Despite losing their final two matches, the team proved to be swans, not ugly ducklings, as they shed the stigma of apathy and the “valley generation” to reach the final four.
Kim Eun-joong’s South Korea U-20 soccer team lost 1-0 to Israel in the third-place match of the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup at La Plata Stadium in Argentina on Wednesday (June 12). After conceding a goal in the 19th minute, South Korea tied the game at 1-1 five minutes later when captain Lee Seung-won (Gangwon) converted a penalty kick earned by Bae Joon-ho, but conceded back-to-back goals in the 31st and 40th minutes.
Before the tournament, Kim Eun-jong-ho’s gaze was cold. There were no star players like Lee Kang-in (Mallorca), and no players who had established themselves in the K League. Instead of towering peaks like other generations, they were called the “valley generation,” an unwelcomed name that seemed to fit in between.
Lee Hyun-joo (Bayern Munich) and Sung Jin-young (Korea University), the team’s top scorer at the U-20 Asian Cup, fell to injury, and Park Seung-ho (Incheon) broke his ankle during the tournament. The lack of international experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden change of venue also added to the bad news. Despite Korea’s best-ever runner-up finish four years ago, the primary goal was to make it through the group stage.
But a giant gust of wind blew through the valley. They made waves in their first game, beating favorites France 2-1, and then drew with Honduras (2-2) and Gambia 스포츠토토 (0-0) to advance to the round of 16 undefeated. They then went on to defeat strong opponents such as Ecuador (3-2) in the round of 16 and Nigeria (1-0) in the quarterfinals to reach the quarterfinals for the second consecutive time.
South Korea defeated powerhouses one after another in the tournament by playing physical soccer. Despite being outplayed in terms of ball possession and shots on goal, they effectively shut down their opponents’ attacks with solid defensive organization and launched counterattacks. In particular, they prepared thoroughly for set pieces, as six of their 10 goals (two penalty kicks) came from set pieces.
And let’s not forget the warm leadership. Kim, who got teary-eyed when referring to his players after reaching the quarterfinals, created synergy by communicating well with them. After the tournament, he said, “There was no issue in the preparation process (not being in the spotlight), which could have lowered their motivation, but the players endured the hardships,” and added, “Thank you for proving their worth at the World Cup.” As he said, the players proved themselves.
True to his word, the players proved themselves. Captain Lee Seung-won won the Bronze Ball (third best player) with three goals and four assists in the tournament. His seven offensive points are the most ever by a South Korean player at a FIFA-sanctioned men’s tournament, surpassing Lee Kang-in’s total from four years ago (two goals, four assists).
Meanwhile, in the final, Uruguay defeated Italy 1-0 to win its first U-20 World Cup title. Italy’s Cesare Cassaday was the top scorer with seven goals and won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.