S Korea exits with historic success

South Korea's unlikely run changed the landscape of World Cup soccer and ended just short of the championship match.

updated: February 25, 2007 09:27 IST
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South Korea's unlikely run changed the landscape of World Cup soccer and ended just short of the championship match. Three-time champion Germany defeated the co-hosts 1-0 as South Korea failed to become the first Asian team to make the finals of football's premier event, going instead to a third-place match on the eve of the championship game. South Korea was nearly perfect until today, coming out on top of its group with wins over Portugal and Poland, and a 1-1 tie against the United States. A 2-1 extra-time win over three-time champion Italy followed in the second round. And then came a stunning penalty shootout win over Spain to make the South Koreans the first Asian side to ever reach the semifinals. There was controversy along the line, too, as both Italy and Spain had apparent goals nullified by questionable officiating. Failing to break the 0-0 deadlock in the first half against the Germans, South Korea replaced two players early in the second half but could not connect. German midfielder Michael Ballack silenced the 65,000 red-clad home fans filling Seoul's World Cup stadium in the 75th minute with the game's only goal. Stopped on the first shot from about 12 metres, Ballack chipped in the rebound from 6. Despite the loss, the "Red Devils" fans gave a standing ovation to their players. Expectations were high, but the loss wasn't a blow. South Korea is basking in its incredible run in the tournament and had already designated July 1 as a one-time national holiday. "With the semifinals, the South Korean players have now earned pride and confidence. This has been the best chance for South Korean soccer to develop," said midfielder Park Ji-sung. In 1966 in England, North Korea reached the quarterfinals with a 1-0 win over Italy. But its campaign ended with a 5-3 loss to Portugal in the round of eight. Having no previous wins in the World Cup (10 losses and 4 draws in 14 games), South Korea entered this year's tournament with the stated goal of reaching the second round of 16. A few months ago few expected the South Koreans to get that far. Earlier this year in the Gold Cup in Los Angeles, the Koreans didn't win any of their five matches. Local media heaped harsh criticism on Hiddink, saying his rigorous training sessions wore out the players even before the match. Some suggested replacing him. Hiddink's once criticized workouts started paying off just weeks ahead of the World Cup finals. The squad can now outlast most opponents, making the defence tighter and the offence sharper. The Dutchman is the first ever to guide two teams to the semifinals - the Netherlands in 1998 and South Korea in 2002. Just a "foreigner" when he arrived in South Korea 18 months ago, he is now a Korean hero. He's been offered a free villa on Korea's southern resort island of Jeju, free flights with the flag carrier, cash bonuses and will probably have streets named after him and statues erected in his honour. Fans also have been urging the government to bestow South Korean citizenship on him. (AP)