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Can South Korea Finally Break Out At The World Cup?

10:21 AM EDT on July 17, 2023

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 07: Players of Korea Republic huddle on the pitch prior to the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group A match between France and Korea Republic at Parc des Princes on June 07, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Catherine Ivill - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.

South Korea's women's national team is a solid program with a few good moments, a handful of great players, and precious few instances of triumph. They've qualified for three World Cups in a row now, a sign of progress, though their -21 goal differential at the tournament, with six goals in 10 games and eight games where they've conceded multiple goals, shows how far they are from actually making any noise on the world stage. They finished bottom of their group in 2019, losing all three games by a combined score of 8-1.

In Asian competition, they are clearly below Japan, Australia, China, and North Korea (when they decide to play) in the pecking order, and while they have played well in continental competition lately, the team's generation of stars in their prime might not have another big-time World up run in them after this one. If ever there was a year for Korea to ascend, this might be their best shot for a while.

Manager Colin Bell is bringing a very experienced team to the World Cup, highlighted by several European-based players like Lee Geum-min, Cho So-hyun, and Ji So-yun (see below). Under Bell, South Korea has established an identity as a solid defensive team that likes to play a 3-4-1-2 formation and play out of the back. When it works, the team's defenders are pressuring opponents into turnovers, letting Lee and Ji get on the ball early to build attacking moves. They made it all the way to the final of the 2022 Asian Cup, defeating Australia and the Philippines and taking a 2-0 lead into halftime against China in the final before the dam broke and they surrendered three goals. The team has played well in recent friendlies, too, beating Zambia twice by an aggregate score of 10-2, though they also dropped a trio of games against European opposition. Their group is a tough one, with Germany at the fore and upstart, exciting Colombian and Moroccan teams joining them to battle it out for the other spot in the round of 16. It will not be an easy path out of the group. But Bell has them playing well, and they have a legitimate superstar pulling strings in the midfield. Speaking of which...

Who Is Their Star?

Ji So-yun, former Chelsea attacking midfielder, is the most decorated player in program history and the strongest creative force on the team. Ji spent eight seasons wearing the no. 10 shirt for some great Chelsea teams, where she racked up a huge list of honors: 68 goals, four FA Cups, and six Women's Super League titles. Manager Emma Hayes called her a magician with the ball and once said Ji deserved a statue. She is tied for the most caps in South Korean women's soccer history with 145, and is the team's all-time leading goalscorer with 67 goals.

That's even more impressive when you consider that Ji's game is not really built around scoring the rock, but rather building up attacks and engineering dangerous moves as a creative attacking midfielder. She's so controlled on the ball, able to hold onto through immense pressure with her low center of gravity and dart past defenders with real burst. Her highlight reels are replete with primo midfielder nastiness, feinting once to juke three defenders, receiving and turning past a defender to smack a long cross at a player she's barely glanced at, nailing free kicks from outside the box. She really can do it all. Her progressive passing is world-class, as is her tight passing in space. She's simply electric.

Though she left Chelsea to return to Korea last year, she's still clearly at her best. Ji just scored five goals at the most recent Asian Cup, including Korea's second in the final against China and the game-winner against a fearsome Australia side. They run everything through her, as they should, and if Korea can make some magic, it will likely be via Ji.

Tell Me About A Cool Youngster

Casey Phair has zero caps at the senior level, just turned 16 last month, and is set to take the field as the first mixed-race member of either senior Korean national team. The New Jersey native popped onto the KFA's radar while playing for the prestigious Players Development Academy in New Jersey, and she showed out at the U-17 level for Korea earlier this year, smacking in a pair of goals against Tajikistan then following up that performance with a hat trick against Hong Kong.

Phair, one of four 16-year-olds heading to the World Cup, plays striker, though since she's only played against high schoolers and overmatched U-17 sides, there isn't too much tape to eat here. There are nine players who are twice as old as Phair on the squad, so it might seem like there's zero chance she sees the field in New Zealand. But Bell has insisted that she's here to contribute and score goals. "[Phair] is not going as a passenger but as a valuable member of the squad and has every chance of getting into the team," he said at a presser earlier this month. "We’re taking care of her, she’s taken very well to the team. She’s in the squad on merit. She deserves, on her performance, to be selected."

Who Is Their Enemy?

By simple geography, it's probably North Korea, who the Taegeuk Ladies have only ever beaten once. North Korea has a very strong women's program, or rather, had a very strong women's program, as they have not played a match since 2019. The North Koreans have enjoyed considerably more success than their southern counterparts, winning three Asian Games, making two Olympics, and qualifying for four World Cups. They held a 12-0 aggregate goalscoring record across three games before South Korea even earned their first point, off a 2-2 draw at the 2003 AFC Women's Championship. In 2005, the two nations' men's teams were playing a competitive game, so the women's teams played a friendly, which the South won, 1-0. That remains their only win in the series, in which North Korea has an impressive 12-1-2 record. The last time they played each other was in a 2017 AFC Championship qualifier in Pyongyang that ended in a 1-1 draw. They are in the same group for AFC Olympic qualification, and while they are scheduled to play this October, it's unclear if the North will field a team.

South Korea and Japan also have a fierce rivalry, with Japan also holding a healthy edge in the all-time series.

National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool

Geumwa was the son of Hae Buru, who founded and ruled the ancient kingdom of Dongbuyeo on the northeastern coast of the Korean peninsula around 86 BCE. Now, Dongbuyeo only lasted for three generations of kings before being absorbed into the much larger and longer lasting kingdom of Goguryeo, though he caught my eye because of the anuran circumstances of his birth. By which I mean, Korean mythology says Hae Buru found a golden frog-boy (or snail-boy, depending on which translation you favor) and raised him and made him crown prince. I think a frog king is cool.

Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition

Korean food is so obviously scrantacular that I shudder at the responsibility of even trying to figure out what a single national dish could even be, or sussing out the degree to which my decades of eating Korean food in the United States is at all representative of Korean cuisine as it exists on the peninsula. So instead, I will tell you about some Korean food I want, served by Okdongsik in Manhattan.

The restaurant has 13 seats and serves two dishes: mandoo, but more importantly, dweji gomtang, a somehow light and clear pork broth poured over lovingly steamed rice and topped with thin slices of pork, a small bit of kimchi, and just enough gochuji to add some zing. The idea of a restaurant that has dialed in exactly one dish is extremely enticing, and I thirst for the alchemical pork elixir. Pete Wells's review in the Times introduced me to the Korean phrase "siwonhan-mat, a sense of pleasurable well-being from having eaten a light, carefully balanced meal." If that's not scran I don't know what is.

What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?

Make it past Colombia and out of the group. It would be a fantastic sign of progress if Korea were to win a round of 16 game for the first time in program history, though given how the bracket will break, that is exceedingly unlikely. An upset win over either France or Brazil would be spectacular, though very improbable unless France mutiny against their awful federation. So, given that, a second group stage escape would be a nice outcome, and honestly, I would like to see them score more than three goals in their group play. Time to put the ball in the net.

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