The decibel levels rose dramatically at the Kalinga Stadium. If one would have had their eyes shut, they would assume that India were scoring goals, racing away to victory. Only that India have already been knocked out of the competition for the top spot and will play classification games 320km away in Rourkela.
Despite the home team being eliminated, fans turned out in huge numbers to support the only Asian team left in the World Cup – South Korea. With the roughly 12,000 supporting every forward push the Koreans were making, the world No 9 team fought back from 3-5 down to not just level the scores at 5-5 but eventually oust 2016 Rio Olympic champions Argentina on Sunday by a 3-2 margin in the shootout – arguably the biggest upset of the tournament.
The shootout was nothing short of dramatic. Every Korean goal was cheered and every save by Kim Jaehyeon was celebrated in the stands. After Kim saved the final Argentine attempt by Martin Ferreiro, the Korean goalkeeper rushed towards the stands to acknowledge the support with his team engulfing him for crazy celebrations with water replacing the unavailable champagne.
“India being Olympic bronze medallists, Asia’s leader, a high-ranking team, it was very sad to see them going out in the crossovers by losing the shootout. Then Malaysia and Japan also did not make the quarter-finals. So, there was pressure on Korea as the only Asian team left,” said South Korean coach Shin Seok Kyo, who won two Asian Games gold medals in 1994 and 2002 apart from the 2000 silver at the Olympics.
Korea’s hockey journey began in the mid-1980s. To prepare for their first-ever Olympics in 1988 Seoul, they put together a team for the 1986 Asian Games, also held in South Korea’s Seongnam. After testing players through various athletic disciplines, South Korea created history by winning gold in 1986. In the next 10 years, a country with no hockey history became the undisputed kings of Asia with skillful players using unique tricks, lobs and aerial balls – unfamiliar to the game back then.
From 1994 to 2006, South Korea reached the finals of all four Asian Games, winning three. They reached the finals of the Asia Cup five out of six times from 1994 to 2013, winning four. They also won the 2022 Asia Cup when India sent a second-string side to Jakarta. In World Cups, they finished fourth twice in 2002 and 2006. But their greatest success was a silver medal finish at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
But the East Asian nation’s standards and fortunes have declined in the last decade. They failed to qualify for both Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 and missed the cut for the 2018 World Cup here.
But Odisha 2023 falls in good stead ahead of the Hangzhou Asian Games later this year. A come-from-behind victory over a team that stood atop the Olympic podium only seven years ago in a crucial World Cup knockout game speaks volumes about their aspirations. Significantly, the winner of the 2023 Asian Games will get direct qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics, meaning the South Koreans could also hamper India’s chances.
“After a long time we are playing a World Cup. The last was 2014. Considering that, our entry into the quarter-finals is fantastic. Fourteen of our players are playing their first World Cup while six are experienced. We have a young team who have a bright future. Our target is to win the Hangzhou Asian Games,” said Shin, who was part of the Olympic silver medal-winning squad in 2000.
To beat Argentina, the Koreans were not just all high press but also a strong defensive unit, especially in the last quarter when Argentina increased their attacks. After thwarting Los Leones, the Koreans toppled South Americans in the shootout to enter their first World Cup last eight since New Delhi 2010.
“Our boys had the confidence. I am so happy that an Asian team is in the quarter-finals. My boys are young. On some days they play very well, on other days not. They will take more time, training and experience. Maybe they will take 2-3 years to develop into a strong team,” added the head coach, who also played in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
Hockey is a small sport in South Korea approximately having 10,000 amateur players out of which only 500 take it up professionally. The number reduces to 150-200 who play at the elite level in five university teams and four clubs – Seongnam, Gimhae, Incheon and the Army. The national league commences in March and ends in October.
The outfit had a busy end of 2022 as they played the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in November, the Nations Cup in December after which they went to Spain for practice games, returned home for only two days before heading out to India.
“We prepared for long which is why we have been successful here. Our players have got good individual skill, the team is strong but it will not be easy in the quarter-finals. I told the team to focus on basic skills like ball control, open receiving, how to get kick in attacking, how to defend. Our opposition here have very good skills. We are preparing for a better future. This competition is a good experience for the young boys. I hope they will have the confidence for the quarter-finals,” said the coach.
The hero of the Korean team in the shootouts, Kim feels the quarter-final is going to be tough. “Holland is the No 1 team in this tournament. We saw their group stage matches. They are the only team to have won every single group game. They are a very strong team, scoring plenty of goals,” said Kim.
The Netherlands have so far scored 22 goals – the second highest in the tournament after Australia – and are the only team apart from England to have not conceded even one goal. But they too are not taking South Korea for lightly. “We don’t underestimate them. We are really focussing on how to beat them. I didn’t expect them to beat Argentina. On paper Argentina is a better team. But in a tournament a lot of things can happen. Everything is possible. We saw yesterday South Korea is a really good team with penalty corner specialists,” said Dutch forward Thijs van Dam.