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(U20 World Cup) Cinderella at the show: S. Korea complete unlikely march into final

All Headlines 05:57 June 12, 2019

LUBLIN, Poland, June 11 (Yonhap) -- The march goes on.

South Korea's Cinderella run at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland will extend all the way to the championship final, after their 1-0 victory over Ecuador in Tuesday's semifinals.

Wing back Choi Jun played the unlikely hero, scoring his first goal of the tournament to send the young Taeguk Warriors to the ultimate stage.

Before the tournament, when South Korean players talked confidently about making the final four, their bravado was mostly dismissed as a product of the players' youthful exuberance. If nothing else, you had to give them credit for having confidence.

The players didn't help themselves by dropping the first group match against Portugal 1-0 on May 25. But they've been a completely different team since, reeling off five consecutive victories to reach the final for the first time. They will take on Ukraine on Saturday.

South Korean players and coaches celebrate their 1-0 victory over Ecuador in the semifinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup at Lublin Stadium in Lublin, Poland, on June 11, 2019. (Yonhap)

South Korea have never won a FIFA men's tournament before, or even reached the final. The 2010 U-17 Women's World Cup title remains the country's only FIFA championship.

Coached by Chung Jung-yong, this South Korean team has a chance to make a piece of their own history.

Chung has proven to be quite the tactician and he's not been afraid to make significant adjustments not just from match to match, but from one half to the next.

And the players have bought into whatever Chung has been preaching, and their execution has been nearly perfect.

The turning point may have come during halftime against South Africa in the second group match. It was a scoreless contest at the time, and South Korea desperately needed a win to give themselves a chance to advance to the knockout stage. But they displayed little urgency in the opening 45 minutes, prompting Chung to give them a wake-up call during a pep talk.

His message to the players was straightforward: After all that hard work, would you want to go home after just three matches here?

South Korean players celebrate their goal against Ecuador in the semifinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup at Lublin Stadium in Lublin, Poland, on June 11, 2019. (Yonhap)

The players responded with a 1-0 victory in that match and they haven't lost since.

Though this has mostly been a team effort, two players stick out for their individual excellence.

The team's offense often begins with Lee Kang-in, the playmaking midfielder who's scored once and set up four others so far. He was asked to shoulder some defensive responsibilities on top of his offensive duties against Portugal, but sensing that Lee was ineffective in the role, Chung unleashed him to a decidedly more offensive role starting in the second match. And Lee has been putting on a show since, with his picture-perfect passes drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd and striking fear into opposing defenders.

Lee Gwang-yeon has come up with some spectacular saves in net. Most notably, he made a stop during the penalty shootout against Senegal in the quarterfinals, as South Korea rallied for a 3-2 despite having their first two kickers miss. And with South Korea nursing a 1-0 lead against Ecuador, Lee denied Alexander Alvarado and Leonardo Campana in the final stretch to preserve the historic victory.

Lee Kang-in of South Korea takes a corner against Ecuador in the semifinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup at Lublin Stadium in Lublin, Poland, on June 11, 2019. (Yonhap)

South Korea's improbable journey adds a new layer of unpredictability to the youth tournament. There have been six different champions over the past six tournaments, and a new champion will be crowned again this year after the 2017 champions England failed to even make it out of the European qualifying this time.

South Korean players are basically playing with house money. Every match since the round of 16 has been a bonus to them, because not many outside the team expected this team to go this deep into the tournament. And maybe even a few within the team doubted, at least privately, that they'd be in the final.

But here they are now, one win away from the ultimate prize. And a group of loose players who have nothing to lose can always be dangerous.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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