Ready ‘unknowns’ spark U20 World Cup quarterfinal uprising

No aces, no stars, but the U20s shine brightest as a team
Kim Eun-joong’s leadership shines as Lee Seung-won, Choi Seok-hyun and Lee Young-joon unearth hidden gems

A victory message from Argentina dawns on South Korea. At the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup, the South Korean U-20 team, led by head coach Kim Eun-jung, reached the quarterfinals. It was a stunning achievement for a team that had no expectations and plenty of concerns. “I’m grateful to the players who believed in each other and achieved this result despite not receiving any attention,” he said.

The past year and six months have been a series of twists and turns for Kim Eun-jung. When Kim took over the reins at the end of 2021, he had his work cut out for him. The coronavirus pandemic had virtually shut down the national age-group teams for two years, cutting off access to prospects. For a year, Kim struggled to find young players, mainly from the K League B team (second division) and university teams. At the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-20 Asian Cup in March, the team only made it to the quarterfinals due to an injury to captain Lee Seung-won and home advantage over hosts Uzbekistan in the semifinals.

Rising from the ashes of ‘COVID-19’ and ‘venue change’

The U-20 World Cup was initially scheduled to be held in Indonesia. Coach Kim completed a field trip and made a plan that took into account the Indonesian environment. However, FIFA abruptly changed the venue three days before the draw. Some local governments and extremist groups in the Islamic nation of Indonesia made statements that they could not guarantee the safety of the Israeli team. Just over a month before the tournament, FIFA announced Argentina as the new host. South Korea had to deal with everything from jet lag to a 180-degree change of scenery.

Due to the sudden change, the cost of accommodation in Argentina more than tripled. There was also a shortage of training facilities. Kim’s solution was to set up camp in São Paulo, Brazil, where the time difference is the same. São Paulo had a direct flight to Mendoza, where the team would play the group stage. After spending ten days in São Paulo and playing two practice matches to improve his condition, Kim arrived in Mendoza four days before the first match.

The plan worked. Arriving so close to kickoff was a stroke of good luck, and it paid off in the first group game. They defeated European powerhouse France 2-1. South Korea had never won against France in a FIFA-organized tournament (1-1). They drew with Honduras in the second round and The Gambia in the third round to go through the group stage unbeaten for the first time in a FIFA-organized tournament. After beating Ecuador 3-2 in the round of 16, Kim defeated host Argentina and then beat Nigeria 1-0 in extra time to reach the quarterfinals.

At the tournament in Poland four years ago, South Korea reached the final for the first time in World Cup history. It was the highest achievement for the men’s national team in a FIFA-organized tournament. But that time, they had Lee Kang-in (Mallorca), one of the world’s top prospects at the time. After losing their first group game to Portugal, coach Chung Jeong-yong built his tactics around Lee’s overwhelming individual ability, and the team went on to win the tournament. Despite losing to Ukraine in the final, Lee proved to be the best player in the tournament, winning the Golden Ball (MVP) at just 18 years old.

There is no other South Korean player of Lee’s stature at the tournament. There was Bae Joon-ho (Daejeon Hana Citizen), who was recognized as a talented high school player, Kang Sung-jin (FC Seoul), who had already scored a goal in his A-match debut, and Kim Ji-soo (Seongnam FC), the “next Kim Min-jae,” who was attracting interest from European clubs, but they were far from the global spotlight. However, once the lid was lifted, players with hidden competitiveness emerged. Even FIFA said, “Korea is playing fantastic football. There are many talented players who are shining.”

Ten-year coach Kim Eun-jung delivers passionate and calm leadership

One such player is midfielder Lee Seung-won (Gangwon FC). Lee was named to the U-20 national team’s first call-up after Kim Eun-joong took over as coach in January last year while still at Dankook University. Prior to that, he had never been called up to the national team at any age group. Kim recognized Lee’s solid fundamentals, passing ability, and wide vision and named him captain from the first call-up. “I’m happier when I can put in a good pass for the buildup than for an attacking point,” said Lee, who cites Hwang In-beom as a role model. By the quarterfinals, he had scored four assists from set pieces alone, thanks to his accurate kicking.

Choi Seok-hyun (Dankook University), the only university student among the field players, is Kim’s secret weapon. At 178 centimeters tall, he is short for a center back, but he ties up opposing attackers. Originally a flanker, Kim saw his quick feet and header ability and chose him as a partner for long defender Kim Ji-soo. With a solid build reminiscent of a wrestler, Choi’s ability to join the attack also shone through. He scored the game-winning header in both the round of 16 and quarterfinals. His teammate at Dankook University, Lee Seung-won, made a name for himself as a goal-scoring defender in the tournament with his kicks.

Large striker Lee Young-jun (Gimcheon Commerce) has also made a splash. He started 17 games for Suwon FC last year, totaling just 485 minutes, but his position with the U-20 national team was different. Despite his size (192cm, 87kg), Kim consistently used Lee Young-jun for his link-up play and ability to break through off the dribble. He scored the most goals (10 in 20 games) since Kim’s arrival. In the tournament, Lee scored against France and Ecuador. His goal against Ecuador was a perfect trifecta of penetration, ball trapping, and finishing.

It was Kim Eun-joong who found these hidden gems and brought them together. He is in his 10th year of coaching, having started as a playing coach in 2014, and is a coach who combines passion and calmness. For eight years before becoming a head coach, he worked as a coach and acting head coach of Two Biz in the Belgian second division and as the head coach of the Korea Under-23 national team, learning how to survive on the international stage in various ways.

This decade of experience has been invaluable. The team was able to control a number of variables during the tournament, including the loss of midfielder Lee Hyun-joo, who is being targeted by Bayern Munich, and forward Sung Jin-young, who was the team’s top scorer at the U-20 Asian Cup. Even during the tournament, striker Park Seung-ho was sent home with a fractured ankle, leaving the team with fewer resources. Kim turned that crisis into an opportunity. For the tournament, Kim prepared a strictly counterattacking attacking pattern. The choice was made to erase defensive anxiety. FIFA also rated Kim’s transition from defense to offense as the best in the tournament.안전놀이터

His game plan was also flexible. He analyzed his opponents well and varied the formation of his pressing line from the back or from the defense. The biggest magic was their set-piece strategy. In the five games leading up to the quarterfinals, South Korea scored eight goals, four of which came from set pieces. A variety of set-piece plays, reminiscent of the eight colors of the rainbow, provided clear scoring routes. In terms of leadership, Kim Eun-joong, who was born in 1979, communicated well with his players. He was approachable, but at the same time, he emphasized sticking to his principles. Kim went on to write a more successful chapter in his coaching career.

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