By Yoo Jee-ho
INCHEON, Dec. 7 (Yonhap) -- The feel-good, underdog story that South Korea carved out at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar was all due to the players' commitment to their goal and their perseverance, captain Son Heung-min said Wednesday.
Son and his team received a massive welcome Wednesday evening at Incheon International Airport, where an estimated thousand fans had gathered to show their support for the Taegeuk Warriors.
With Son inspiring his teammates by playing through facial fractures, South Korea reached the round of 16 in Qatar, the country's first knockout appearance in 12 years. Though they lost to world No. 1 Brazil 4-1 on Monday night in Doha, national team supporters still lauded the players for their effort.
"The biggest reason why we reached the round of 16 was that everyone worked so hard behind the scenes to make it possible. There's no doubt in my mind about that," Son told reporters. "Every team obviously tries hard to get to that point, but I think we put in even more effort to accomplish that feat."
Head coach Paulo Bento oversaw the entire, four-year process of South Korea's moving on from the early exit at the 2018 World Cup to preparing for the 2022 tournament. Along the way, Bento faced criticism for being stubborn and inflexible, but Son said he and his teammates never lost faith.
"If we had doubts about our own system, then it would have shown up in our play on the field," Son said. "I think we were able to persevere through difficult moments because we were so well prepared and we had developed relentlessness during the process."
Son, who has now played at three World Cups, thanked his younger teammates for competing so fearlessly in their World Cup debuts.
"I am sure we could have done better, but we were unlucky to meet Brazil, one of the tournament favorites, so early," Son said. "But we put ourselves in that situation. I am sure the guys learned a lot from this experience, and hopefully we will all grow up from this."
Son was nearly forced to miss the entire tournament. He suffered multiple fractures around his left eye in a collision with an opponent on Nov. 1 and had surgery on Nov. 4. He played his first group stage match in Qatar only 20 days later, wearing what has since become his signature, black protective mask. Son played all four matches in Qatar without once getting subbed.
"If I were to go three or four weeks back in time and ask (myself) if I could play four full matches at the World Cup, the answer probably would have been no," Son said. "I am grateful for having played until the round of 16. I am recovering well."
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