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(World Cup) Young striker, dazzling midfielder among rising stars for S. Korea

Sports 11:00 December 06, 2022

By Yoo Jee-ho

DOHA, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- In a span of less than two weeks, South Korean forward Cho Gue-sung went from a relative unknown among casual football fans to an almost household name with the fastest-growing Instagram account on the national team at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Cho started the tournament with about 30,000 followers. But after the end of South Korea's World Cup on Monday night in Doha, he had 2.37 million followers -- this for an account with only six posts, but just one during the World Cup.

It was his movie-star looks that first garnered national attention when he entered South Korea's first match against Uruguay as a second-half substitute. But Cho proved he wasn't just a pretty face with no substance, netting two goals against Ghana for his biggest international moment to date.

Cho Gue-sung of South Korea (C) attempts a shot against Brazil during the countries' round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup at Stadium 974 in Doha on Dec. 5, 2022. (Yonhap)

Cho Gue-sung of South Korea (C) attempts a shot against Brazil during the countries' round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup at Stadium 974 in Doha on Dec. 5, 2022. (Yonhap)

It came in Cho's first World Cup start. He remained in the starting lineup the rest of the way, though he failed to add to his goal total and South Korea crashed out of the competition with a 4-1 loss to Brazil.

Still, it was a World Cup to remember for Cho, who is the first South Korean player to score multiple goals in a World Cup match.

Cho won the scoring title in the K League 1 with 17 goals in 31 matches, split with the military club Gimcheon Sangmu FC and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. While fulfilling his military duty, Cho added muscle to his upper body and developed into a powerful striker who's hard to knock off the ball.

And it was that added strength and physicality that gave Cho an edge over Hwang Ui-jo, the former mainstay at the forward position who was usurped by the 24-year-old Cho in Qatar.

With his breakout performance in Qatar, Cho is expected to draw interest from clubs outside South Korea. And he said after the Brazil match he'd like to test himself against better competition.

Cho Gue-sung of South Korea (L) attempts a shot against Brazil during the countries' round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup at Stadium 974 in Doha on Dec. 5, 2022. (Yonhap)

Cho Gue-sung of South Korea (L) attempts a shot against Brazil during the countries' round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup at Stadium 974 in Doha on Dec. 5, 2022. (Yonhap)

"Now that I've played against European and South American stars, I am more motivated now to keep growing and to have another shot at facing them," Cho said. "I feel like I can become a better football player if I go play in Europe."

Both of Cho's goals were header goals, and he said he gained a great deal of confidence in aerial duels.

As for his newfound fame, Cho said, "I don't think I am that great of a player. I've been getting a lot of help from my teammates. I'll just keep doing my best."

The first of Cho's two goals against Ghana was set up by midfielder Lee Kang-in, who enjoyed a star turn of his own in Qatar as a super sub.

Unlike Cho, Lee had already been one of South Korea's most popular football players. However, Lee appeared to be in head coach Paulo Bento's doghouse as recently as September, when the coach kept the 21-year-old midfielder for RCD Mallorca glued to the bench in two friendly matches.

Lee Kang-in of South Korea (L) tries to dribble the ball past Bremer of Brazil during the countries' round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup at Stadium 974 in Doha on Dec. 5, 2022. (Yonhap)

Lee Kang-in of South Korea (L) tries to dribble the ball past Bremer of Brazil during the countries' round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup at Stadium 974 in Doha on Dec. 5, 2022. (Yonhap)

Bento still picked Lee for the World Cup and relied on him to provide offensive spark off the bench in the second half of the first two matches.

Lee drew his first World Cup starting assignment against Portugal to close out the group stage and then went back to the reserve role against Brazil.

Lee had long been groomed for success. He won the Golden Ball as the best player of the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, when he led South Korea to the runner-up finish as an 18-year-old.

Given the trajectory of their development and their age, it's not difficult to imagine seeing Cho and Lee lead South Korea's offense over the next two World Cups, at least.

"I don't know how many more World Cups I'll get to play," Lee said after the Brazil match. "I'll just try to get better every day. It's every player's to play at a World Cup. I am taking away so many great memories and I've learned so much."

Lee Kang-in of South Korea (L) battles Dani Alves of Brazil for the ball during the countries' round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup at Stadium 974 in Doha on Dec. 5, 2022. (Yonhap)

Lee Kang-in of South Korea (L) battles Dani Alves of Brazil for the ball during the countries' round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup at Stadium 974 in Doha on Dec. 5, 2022. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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