Korean soccer has rewritten the ‘Top 4 myth’ once again. It was a team effort.
The South Korea Under-20 (U-20) football team, led by head coach Kim Eun-jung, defeated Nigeria 1-0 in the quarterfinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Argentina 2023 at the Santiago del Estero Stadium in Argentina on Friday to advance to the quarterfinals. Choi Seok-hyun (Dankook University) scored the game-winning goal off a corner kick in the fifth minute of extra time.
South Korea has now reached the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup for the second consecutive time after finishing as runners-up four years ago. It is the fifth time South Korean men’s soccer has reached the quarterfinals of a FIFA-sanctioned tournament after the 1983 and 2019 U-20 World Cups, the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup and the 2012 London Olympics (organized by the International Olympic Committee and hosted by FIFA). The team will take on Italy at 6 a.m. on Sept. 9 to advance to the final.
Nigeria went 2-1 in Group D, a “Group of Death” that also included Brazil and Italy, and was a tough opponent for South Korea, who beat host Argentina 2-0 in the Round of 16. The team struggled to register a single shot on target before the first goal, and were out-shot 4-22 overall. However, Korea’s solid organization kept the Nigerians at bay, and they were focused enough not to miss a single chance. Coach Kim Eun-joong was pleased with the result, saying, “The players did a good job of holding on, and I’m really grateful to them because they are the future of Korean soccer.”
The U-20 team had not received much attention before the tournament. From the 2017 U-20 World Cup, where Lee Seung-woo (Suwon FC) and Baek Seung-ho (Jeonbuk) led the team to the round of 16, to the 2019 tournament, where Lee Kang-in (Mallorca) won the tournament’s Golden Ball (MVP), there were “stars” who were supported by the entire nation, but this time there were no standout players. There was more concern than excitement, with the uncomfortable phrase “valley generation,” meaning skipping a generation, following.
But the Taeguk Warriors pulled off a delightful rebellion to reach the quarterfinals. The players were united by coach Kim Eun-joong’s “silly soccer” style of play. After stopping their opponents’ attacks with strong defense, they focused on counterattacks and exploited their opponents’ weaknesses through set pieces. The strategy paid off, as half of their eight goals in the tournament – four – came from set pieces, making South Korea one of only four teams in the semifinals to go unbeaten in five matches (three wins, two draws).
As the games went on, some reserve “stars” began to emerge. With one goal and four assists, “Captain” Lee Seung-won (Gangwon) was a vital link in the offense. The four assists are the most by a South Korean player in a FIFA-organized tournament since Lee Kang-in in 2019. Notably, all four assists came from set pieces (three corners and one free kick), a first for Lee.
Forward Lee Young-joon (Gimcheon) and midfielder Bae Jun-ho (Daejeon) also stood out. Lee Young-joon is a 6-foot-2, all-around attacker who combines his physicality with excellent decision-making. In the round of 16 against Ecuador, he converted Bae’s cross into a chest-trapping volley, reminiscent of Park Ji-sung (Jeonbuk Director) against Portugal at the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. Bae made his presence felt against Ecuador, scoring a goal and an assist while fooling opposing defenders and even the goalkeeper.
Goal-scoring defender Choi Seok-hyun emerged as a “hero. For the second straight game, Choi scored the winning goal with a header in the round of 16. At 178 centimeters, he’s not the tallest of central defenders, but he has an incredible leaping ability. In addition, the goalkeeper Kim Jun-hong (Gimcheon), who was nicknamed “Light Jun-hong 스포츠토토” for his string of saves, and the backline players such as Kim Ji-soo (Seongnam) and Bae Seo-joon (Daejeon), who play a physical defense.
◆The secret to beating Italy on the 9th… “Restrain the top scorer, Cassaday”
After reaching the quarterfinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the second time in a row, Kim Eun-jong-ho’s semifinal opponent is traditional powerhouse Italy. The South Korean U-20 team, led by head coach Kim Eun-joong, will face Italy in the final at 6 a.m. on Sept. 9.
Like Korea, who have reached the quarterfinals for the second time in a row, Italy have also had a strong showing at the recent U-20 World Cup. They have reached the final four in the last three editions, including a third-place finish in South Korea in 2017 and a fourth-place finish in Poland in 2019.
Comparing the two teams’ records at the tournament, South Korea has three wins and two draws, while Italy has four wins and one loss. The Azzurri lost 0-2 to Nigeria, South Korea’s quarterfinal opponent, in the group stage, but went on to beat Brazil, a heavy favorite, 3-2, and then defeated another heavy favorite, England, 2-1, in the round of 16.
In five games, they have scored 11 goals and conceded six. Compared to South Korea, who have scored eight goals and conceded five in five games, they are slightly better on offense and similar on defense.
Italy’s No. 1 player to watch is Cesare Cassaday, who leads the top scorer race with six goals, more than half of his team’s total. At 6-foot-2, he has good physicality, quick feet, the dribbling ability to carry the ball himself, and quality passing. An attacking midfielder, Cassaday has been known as a goal-scoring midfielder, or “midlicker,” since his Inter Milan youth days. In the 2021-2022 season, he scored 17 goals in 40 games for Inter Milan Youth.
In August of last year, English Premier League club Chelsea signed Cassaday, who had yet to make his first-team debut, for a transfer fee of €15 million (about $21 billion) with a €5 million (about $7 billion) bonus. In England, Cassaday has been compared to Chelsea midfield legend Frank Lampard in terms of his potential.
Cassaday has scored three goals in the tournament, including two against Brazil and a brace against the Dominican Republic. He has now scored in each of his last three games, including one against England in the Round of 16 and Colombia in the quarterfinals.
The Azzurri have the advantage in terms of stamina, as they played their quarterfinal match a day earlier than South Korea, and South Korea went to extra time in the quarterfinals.
However, South Korea and Italy have a two-game lead in the all-time series between the U-20 national teams. At the 1981 U-20 World Cup in Australia, South Korea won 4-1 thanks to two goals from Choi Sun-ho (Suwon FC), and in the 2000 New Year’s tournament in Japan, South Korea won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Lee Ik-su.