By Yoo Jee-ho
AL RAYYAN, Qatar, Dec. 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korean captain Son Heung-min is as happy as anyone on his team that the Taegeuk Warriors are moving on to the round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup, but he's not going to settle for just playing one knockout match in Qatar.
South Korea defeated Portugal 2-1 on Friday thanks to a last-gasp goal by Hwang Hee-chan, with Son picking up the assist during stoppage time. The win, combined with Uruguay's 2-0 win over Ghana in Group H on the same day, sent South Korea to the last 16 on a goals scored tiebreaker, 4-2.
It was an improbable turn of events for South Korea, who began the tournament with a goalless draw with Uruguay and then lost to Ghana 3-2. A lot of things had to go right for South Korea on Friday and stars aligned perfectly.
Son, the heart and soul of the team, was probably the first one to come down from Cloud 9.
"This is great, but our tournament is not over," Son said. "We've always talked about reaching the round of 16 as our objective. But we should now try to go beyond that. Everyone is all excited now but come tomorrow, we have to start preparing for our next match with a new mindset. I hope we can script another miracle."
As for how deep South Korea can go into the tournament, Son said he wasn't prepared to make any predictions or promises.
"Obviously, I'd love to win the World Cup, but realistically, we just have to do our best in every match we play," Son said. "I think good results will naturally follow if we put in our best effort."
Though the two Group H matches kicked off at 6 p.m., the South Korea-Portugal match ended a few minutes earlier than the Uruguay-Ghana contest. South Korea held up their end of the bargain, and the players and coaches gathered near the center of the field to watch nervously as Uruguay were leading Ghana 2-0 in the final moments.
One more goal by Uruguay would have knocked South Korea out on a goal difference tiebreaker, but the South Americans missed on a couple of close chances to get sent packing.
Son said he wasn't really watching the match but was busy talking to his teammates about how proud he was of them.
"When we were in the huddle, I told the guys we deserved to reach the knockouts," Son said. "I said, no matter what happens in that other match, I was really proud of them. I couldn't think of anything else."
Son, competing in his third World Cup, has always been an emotional player and shed more than his share of tears after South Korea's past World Cup losses. This time, he shed some tears of joy after clinching his trip to the round of 16.
"I know very few people expected us to win this match," Son said. "But we never lost faith in ourselves. And having watched these guys closely for so long, I always believed we all deserved to go to greater heights than the group stage."
Son has been playing in Qatar wearing a protective mask. He suffered multiple fractures around his left eye in a collision with an opposing player on Nov. 1, and underwent surgery three days later. Son then played South Korea's first match in Qatar on Nov. 24.
Son was seen taking off his mask in the final seconds of the match, but he said he is still not in a situation where he could play without it.
"It's barely been a month since my operation and I think it will take at least three months for my bones to fully recover from this," Son said. "I am in a position where I have to take huge risks playing through this. But like I said earlier, even if there is a small fraction of a chance that I can play, then I will keep playing."
Portugal predictably dominated the run of play, and Hwang's goal came on a rare fast-break opportunity after a loose ball trickled to open space for Son.
"Realistically, it was always going to be difficult for us to create many chances against Portugal," Son said. "So it was important for us to capitalize on the few chances that we would have. We held our ground really well defensively and we were able to score on that decisive opportunity."
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