By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, June 7 (Yonhap) -- Against all odds, South Korea, a team of unheralded overachievers, find themselves a win away from reaching the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina.
Standing between the young Taegeuk Warriors and a piece of Korean football history will be Italy.
The two countries will battle in the semifinals at La Plata Stadium in La Plata, eastern Argentina, starting at 6 p.m. Thursday local time, or 6 a.m. Friday in Seoul time.
Both teams also made the semifinals at the previous U-20 World Cup in 2019, with the 2021 tournament having been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea beat Ecuador 1-0 then to make the final, while Italy lost to the eventual champions Ukraine 1-0.
South Korea, the only undefeated team still left in this competition with three wins and two draws, have never played in back-to-back finals at any FIFA-sanctioned event.
Compared to the 2019 squad, this year's South Korean team lacks star power. Four years ago, precocious midfielder Lee Kang-in, despite playing underage at 18, won the Golden Ball as the tournament MVP. His teammates included some future K League regulars and senior national team members such as Cho Young-wook, Um Won-sang, Oh Se-hun and Go Jae-hyeon.
Individually, players on this year's team have little of similar potential, though Kim Yong-hak does bring some pedigree after making his senior debut with the Portuguese club Portimonense late last year.
Kim, though, hasn't been South Korea's best player at this tournament. Some of his domestic league-based teammates, such as captain Lee Seung-won, have been carrying the load. Lee leads South Korea with four assists, all of them coming on set pieces.
And head coach Kim Eun-jung has been pushing all the right buttons in getting the most out of his team.
The usually stoic coach was overcome with emotion after South Korea's 1-0, extra-time win over Nigeria in the quarterfinals on Sunday, when he spoke about how his team only faced doubts about their abilities and few, if any, observers back home believed South Korea could get this far into the tournament.
The improbable underdog story will now feature a new antagonist in the high-scoring Italian team.
Of the four semifinal contestants -- Israel and Uruguay being the others -- Italy have scored the most goals so far with 11. They scored six times in three group matches and five more in two knockout matches.
They have scored multiple goals in every match but one, the lone exception being a 2-0 loss to Nigeria in their second group stage game.
Midfielder Cesare Casadei leads Italy and the entire tournament with six goals. He has scored in every Italy victory so far.
South Korea have conceded three penalty goals so far and must stay disciplined against Italy, with Casadei having converted two penalties.
South Korea will once again be considered underdogs in the semifinals but their players are confident they can keep marching on.
"Our initial goal was to make it to the round of 16, and I can't even describe how excited I am to have reached the semifinals," midfielder Park Hyun-bin said, in an interview clip released by the Korea Football Association on Monday. "If we can play well as a team the way we have all along, I think we can advance to the final."
Park, who started against Ecuador in the round of 16 and then was subbed in against Nigeria in the second half, added, "I'll try to do my part to help keep pushing this team."
Defender Bae Seo-joon also said it will take a total team effort to get past Italy.
"I don't think a lot of people expected us to be in the semifinals, but we've come this far because we've stuck together as a team in every match and followed our head coach's lead," Bae said. "We'll try to prepare for Italy the best we can. I hope people back home keep cheering us on."
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