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Rising star eyes Olympic football glory

All News 10:26 January 28, 2016

DOHA, Jan. 28 (Yonhap) -- After enjoying a coming-out party at the Asian Olympic men's football qualification tournament, South Korean forward Hwang Hee-chan said he hopes to be part of the Summer Games, too.

South Korea clinched their eighth consecutive Olympic berth by reaching the final of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Championship here in the Qatari capital. The championship also serves as the regional qualification event for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and South Korea have secured one of three Asian spots.

Once unheralded, Hwang has emerged as a key offensive force and one of South Korea's most promising youngsters. Yet he won't get to play in the final against Japan on Saturday, as he was scheduled to rejoin his Austrian club FC Red Bull Salzburg after the semifinals.

With the championship not on FIFA's International Match Calendar, clubs weren't obliged to make their players available. South Korean officials told Salzburg that Hwang would be returned once the country qualified for the Olympics.

In his last meeting with South Korean reporters before leaving Doha late Wednesday, Hwang said he would've loved to remain with the team through the final.

"I am confident we will win the final, and I will be cheering on my teammates," he said. "It would've been nice to help the team until the end."

Thanks to his excellent showing here, Hwang may have earned himself a chance to make the team for the Olympics proper.

"Playing in the Olympics has been my dream since childhood," he said. "I don't know if I can make the final cut, but I will do the best I can to be selected."

They say no one player is bigger than the game in any team sport, but one would at least have to wonder if South Korea would have come this far without Hwang.

Over the course of the tournament, he has proven that a player can still make a major impact on offense without scoring a goal. Though he has shown a knack for scoring -- he netted 11 goals in 17 matches for the second-division Austrian club FC Liefering this season, on loan from Salzburg -- Hwang took up the role of a playmaker in Doha. And his unselfish play, creative passing and his ability to generate chances off the dribble stretched the opposing defense and led to multiple scoring opportunities for his wingers and midfielders.

The Olympic football tournament is open only to players under 23, while countries can each select three overage players as "wild cards" on their 18-man roster. Hwang, who turned 20 on Tuesday, was one of just two South Korean players born in the year 1996 at this tournament.

In the end, head coach Shin Tae-yong may opt to go with older and more experienced offensive players for Rio. Hwang said he wasn't worried about being the youngest player on the team in Doha -- "We're all the same as football players," he said -- but he knows he has room for improvement.

"I felt like I should start playing a more physical brand of football," said the player listed at 177 centimeters and 70 kilograms (5-foot-10 and 154 pounds). "I also need to work on my techniques around the net. I am disappointed that I didn't score, but goals will come and go."

Hwang had a hand in both of South Korean goals in their 2-1 win over Uzbekistan in the first group match, and also picked up an assist in the 5-0 drubbing of Yemen. His finest moments, however, came in the semifinals against Qatar.

With the score tied at 1-1, Hwang came off the bench in the 79th minute -- he was nursing an ankle injury suffered in the quarterfinals -- and promptly helped swing the momentum in South Korea's favor. His aggressive dribbling pushed Qatari defenders back on their heels, and it was Hwang's smart pass to right fullback Lee Seul-chan that set up the go-ahead goal by Kwon Chang-hoon in the 89th minute.

With seconds remaining and the match all but decided, Hwang assisted on Moon Chang-jin's goal that put the icing on the cake.

Hwang counted the semifinals victory as his fondest memory from Doha.

"I only played a few minutes, but I was glad to help the team win," he said. "It's especially satisfying that we reached the final here and qualified for our eighth straight Olympics."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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