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South Korea Will Need Son Heung-Min To Be Heroic

Heung-min Son of Korea Republic poses during the official FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 portrait session at on November 16, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Patrick Smith/FIFA via Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2022 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 World Cup previews here.

South Korea has been drawn into a tough group in Qatar. Portugal, though somewhat underachieving of late, is bringing an extremely dangerous team to the World Cup. Uruguay knocked South Korea out of the last knockout round game they qualified for, and a bunch of those players are still around this time for more. This is admittedly kind of a down Ghana team, though they are integrating a bunch of younger, more exciting players into the squad. They are going to be up against it, but they have the considerable advantage of having the best player in the group. If South Korea is going to make something of themselves, it will be through Son Heung-min.

Even with Son in the lineup, South Korea hasn't done much in recent World Cup history. They finished bottom of the group in 2014 with a single point, and were already eliminated from contention by their final group game in 2018—though they did beat Germany, 2–0, to seal the Germans' ignoble exit from the tournament they'd won four years prior. When Korea hosted the tournament in 2002, they made a legendary run all the way to the semifinals, so it's not like they have only ever shown up and gotten spanked. And this particular team has some real talent, so despite the difficult group, and despite their recent history, they definitely have the juice to advance.

South Korea will play patient, laborious soccer, building slowly from the back and trying to keep the game from ever getting too wild. One would call it boring if they didn't feature one of the coolest players in the world. Their defense has been fantastic since Paulo Bento took over the team and Kim Min-jae ascended in 2018. They are more than just Son, though without him, they're a well-organized team with some nice pieces that has basically no chance of cohering into anything that anyone good would find dangerous. With him, they have the chance to beat some very good teams.

Like the United States, the Koreans' first group stage game is the most critical. If they get a result against Uruguay, everything opens up. That's rotten timing, as we will get into now, once you ask me . . .

Who Is Their Main Guy?

Son Heung-min, duh, though he has a broken face. Son collided with Marseille’s Chancel Mbemba on Nov. 3, sustaining a fractured eye socket in the process. Normally, that is the sort of injury that would keep a player out for a sustained period of time, as soccer is famously a game that involves hitting things with one's head. Imagine how much shittier this World Cup would be, for Korean fans and also soccer fans generally, if Son wasn't here. There are already so many important players missing, yet none of them are as pivotal to their teams' success as Son. Thankfully, Son has gotten surgery on his eye socket and is now available to play, which he'll do in this extra-cool face mask:

I hope Son is all the way healthy for South Korea's group stage games not only because I like Korea and hope they advance, but also because the spectacle of the tournament needs him. Son does outrageous things with the ball, things that almost nobody else can do, and the point of a World Cup is watching the best players play the coolest soccer in a context that is less organized yet more emotionally charged than their club games. That duality befits Son perfectly. Scoring this profane, Puskas-winning solo goal against Burnley in the first half of a December EPL game was fantastically entertaining, but can you imagine how much more it would mean if Son did something this otherworldly in a South Korea shirt?

As someone whose favorite international team is not a serious contender for the trophy, I relish rooting for the juggernauts, because I want to be entertained above all. A team like Denmark making a run would be cool, but only if they produce some magic along the way. The aesthetic experience matters. That's why I'm pulling for Son, because he's liable to score on anyone, in any scenario, in the rudest and prettiest way he can.

Who Is Their Main Guy Who Won't Score Goals?

Here are some facts about central defender Kim Min-jae. He is is 6-foot-3, he plays for one of the coolest teams in the world, he was named Serie A's player of the month in his first month in Italy, and he's already been attached to the biggest clubs in England despite playing only 20 first-team games for Napoli. If you like watching Kim play at the World Cup, the good news is you will probably like watching him play in the Premier League next year, because he's the type of physically gifted, distributing, mega-reliable center back good EPL teams want.

Kim has marshaled a very effective Korean defense, one that has allowed only 15 goals throughout a packed 2022 (five of them came in a friendly against Brazil that Kim didn't play in.) The team's strategy relies on Son doing incredible things, yes, though they also would like to win every game 1–0, and that requires Kim to be excellent. He'll be tested by some very strong attacking lines, so if South Korea is going to surprise people, Kim will need to be great.

Where's The Beef?

Which teams or players does South Korea not like? Do South Korea's players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.

South Korea has a great record against Japan, with more than two times as many head-to-head wins. They also knocked their Japanese rivals out of contention for the 1962 World Cup, the 1980 Olympics, and the 1986 World Cup, which has to feel good. Also, they advanced further than their co-hosts at the 2002 World Cup and I think that counts for something. Japan has won the past two meetings and is in an easier group this time around, so they might fare better at the 2022 World Cup.

I think it should also be pretty obvious that North Korea is a rival, even if the North Koreans have never been nearly as good or accomplished as South Korea. The two sides last met in Oct. 2019 in a World Cup qualifier that marked the first competitive men's game between the two nations ever held in Pyongyang. The stadium was empty, except for, somehow, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and proceedings were not broadcast, though North Korean authorities promised to send a DVD home with the South Korean team.

Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode

Who is South Korea's best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia's James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia's David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?

Jeong Woo-yeong is poised for big things. The midfielder joined Bayern Munich as a teenager, though, like many who came before him, a bunch of great performances for the reserve team only netted him token appearances in the Champions League (nine minutes) and Bundesliga (four minutes) with Bayern before it became clear that he would have to leave the German megaclub to find first-team playing time. So he went to Freiburg, which is now second in the Bundesliga. Jeong has put together three consecutive solid seasons for the club, and he can do some pretty spectacular things with the ball.

Jeong can play as a winger or as a forward, though he is best deployed as an attacking midfielder, where he can most effectively use his skills as a runner and ball-winner. The main thing that stands out about Jeong is his intelligence. He has a real knack for arriving at the right time onto balls in the box, or picking out the right pass in a crowded area, or knowing when to drift wide and make space in the middle. He's a creative and often deadly passer, with some very solid assist numbers throughout his career. Korea mostly uses him in the center of the field, and he's started the past few friendlies, so he'll probably get a chance in the group stage.

David Ospina Mode Probability Score: 710.1 (out of 3,041)

James Rodriguez Mode Probability Score: 15,689.3 (out of 21,110)

Fun Geographical Fact

Jeju Island, located 50 miles south of the Korean mainland, is a beautiful place with a dark history. The oval-shaped island's beaches, temperate weather, and unique geology have made it one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country, the sort that tourism officials will even pay tiny dog accounts to promote. The island is famous for the haenyeo, diving women, who free dive into the treacherous waters of the Korea Strait and pry up shellfish and nab octopus without the help of any breathing apparatuses. The volcanic history of Jeju is obvious and stunning; there are all sorts of lava tubes, and also, this perfectly formed tuff cone, Seongsan Ilchulbong.

Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone on Jeju Island, South Korea, Asia

But like Bali, Jeju was also the site of a brutal anticommunist massacre. In 1948, shortly after the Korean peninsula was divided between Soviet- and American-backed governments, locals on Jeju rose up against the government, demanded the unification of the peninsula, and were, over the course of the next year, massacred by Syngman Rhee government with help from the Americans. Several thousand combatants were killed, though the uprising is notable for the several thousand more civilians and sympathizers that were massacred. The government covered it up and denied its existence for over 60 years, though that grim history is finally being brought to light.

Good Flag Or Bad Flag?

Image via Getty

One of the best flags in the World Cup.

Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?

The South Korean national anthem kicks ass. Originally composed to be sung to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne," a few different versions of "Aegukga" have been popular patriotic songs on the Korean peninsula since before the Japanese Empire began its occupation in 1910. It became the official anthem in 1948, got a new melody, and was given an official makeover in 2018 by composer Park In-young. Lyrically speaking, it is about the same thing as every other national anthem, though the imagery is strong: Until that day when the waters of the East Sea run dry and Mount Baekdusan is worn away, God protect and preserve our nation; Hurray to Korea.

Notable Moment In World Cup History

South Korea has only made it out of their group twice, though the first time they escaped, they made it count. In 2002, despite getting drawn into a tough group alongside Poland, a good USMNT, and Luis Figo's Portugal, the tournament hosts won their group thanks to Park Ji-sung's incredible 70th-minute winner. But even after their impressive group performance, most of the world expected Italy to rinse them in the round of 16.

And perhaps they would have if not for the suspicious interventions of referee Byron Moreno, who was responsible for one of the worst-officiated games you will ever see at this high of a level. Moreno awarded the Koreans a weak penalty in the first half (they missed), prevented or ruled out two Italian goals due to sketchy offside calls, missed Lee Chun-soo kicking Paolo Maldini in the back of the head, gave Francesco Totti a second yellow for diving in the penalty box when he was halfway across the field, and missed a red card–worthy tackle by Hwang Sun-hong on Gianluca Zambrotta in the 72nd minute. (That last one is the only call he said he regrets). The Italians were furious with Moreno throughout the game and they remain pissed at him two decades later, though South Korea did play a pretty good game in their own right, so it's not as if he alone lifted an inferior team over a side they had no business defeating.

Still, it was a terrible game, and Moreno didn't help his reputation. He was banned from the Ecuadorian league for some suspicious decision-making months after the 2002 World Cup, and in 2010, he was arrested at JFK trying to smuggle 13 pounds of heroin into the United States. South Korea went on to defeat Spain on penalties in the quarterfinal, though they lost 1–0 to Germany in the semis and wound up finishing fourth. That is still the best-ever finish by an Asian team at the World Cup.

How Can They Win The World Cup?

As a wise man once said, "Mask on." Son, emboldened by his facial shield, unleashes the greatest individual performance the World Cup has ever seen, notching hat tricks against each of South Korea's group-mates. This earns them the cat-bird seat on the "easy side" of the bracket, whose teams can scarcely lay there while Son breaks it down. Switzerland: cooked. Spain: cooked. The United States, South Korea's current foreign military occupants: cooked. In the final, a desperate Brazilian side runs a basketball-style box-and-three defense, leaving the rest of the Korean side to play 10-on-8. Son doesn't touch the ball, but South Korea wins the final, 1–0.

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