THE South Korean players sank to the turf. What a time it was to be alive for them. On another night of nerve-wracking drama, they had done it, manufacturing a victory when all seemed lost.
Hwang Hee Chan had scored the goal that would make him the stuff of legend back home. But now was a nervous wait for the other game to end. Their game against Portugal having ended with a 2-1 victory for them, the South Korean players gathered on the centre circle, awaiting the result of the other game between Uruguay and Ghana.
When that ended, the Korean could finally celebrate. The huddle bursting into life, their players jumping with joy, their fans waving flags. It was incredible.
Earlier, the South Koreans had come out from the dugout first after half-time, vigorously warming up for a make-or-break final 45 minutes of their group campaign against Portugal here at the Education City Stadium, nestled on the edge of campuses in Qatar of universities from across the world including Carnegie Mellon and University College London.
Portugal were taking their time. The game locked at 1-1 after the first half meant they had little urgency. They were assured of finishing top in Group ‘H’, having already secured qualification to the round of 16 with a game to spare. For the South Koreans, however, this meant the world to them. A win here, as it stood with Uruguay leading Ghana 2-0 in the other game over at the Al Janoub Stadium, could well be enough to advance on goals scored.
They had shown great powers of recovery against the Portuguese; Kim Young Gwon’s 27th-minute strike, after Cristiano Ronaldo had erred in dealing with a corner, had seen them level the game. They had fallen behind in the fifth minute when winger Ricardo Horta had smashed in Diogo Dalot’s cutback.
Having seen Japan pull off a stirring come-from-behind victory over Spain to punch their way into the last 16 a night earlier, South Korea were looking to do the same and join their East Asian rivals as well as Australia as the third side from the continent to advance in the first World Cup in the Arab world.
The last time the World Cup was held in Asia, in Korea and Japan two decades ago, both the host nations had advanced; the South Koreans going the farthest — to the semi-finals. Then as well, they had faced Portugal in their last game of the group stage; a 1-0 win thanks to Park Ji Sung’s strike easing them through.
The scenarios were vastly different this time though. The Koreans had decided at half-time to give Portugal more of the ball and hit them on the counter and they almost got their reward 11 minutes in when the talismanic Son Heung Min was set free on the right but his shot was deflected away by a last-ditch tackle.
It was after the hour mark that South Korea began probing, thrusting for the winner. Hwang In Beom forcing a save from Diogo Costa with a shot from distance. They then had a loud appeal for a penalty waived when Son’s volley hit Joao Cancelo from point-blank. In truth, Cancelo had no time to react.
The Koreans were looking for that one moment of inspiration; a goal that would take them through. Son almost broke free but was stopped by the last defender.
But the goal they wanted, the goal thousands of their supporters craved, came in dramatic fashion on the stroke of full-time. From a Portugal corner, Son raced away with the ball and ran to the edge of the box where he found Hwang Hee Chan racing in support. The pass was perfect and Hwang slotted in; Korea were in last-16 dreamland with the 2-1 win. The ploy to hit on the counter had paid off marvellously.