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Hope at the end of elimination: 33.000 fans in a square at 5 AM, confidence and a generation that is still strong for Korea’s next steps

Qatar 2022 ended in bitter disappointment for the Republic of Korea team, one that has captured the minds of neutral fans, after delivering a huge surprise in the group phase, by mounting an all-time great comeback against Portugal, to clinch a 2-1 win and eliminate Uruguay from contention.

Sure, Korea might have only led a game at the 2022 FIFA World Cup for only six minutes, the extra-time left in the match against Portugal, after delivering the crucial blow to the European side in the 91st minute, but even after coach Paulo Bento announced he will not be back to lead the team after the conclusion of Qatar 2022, this team surely looks to be heading the right way.

Korea previously qualified from the group phase for the last time at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010, winning a single match from six and drawing another one at Brazil in 2014 and Russia in 2018, but with Bento in place, Korea had a system, albeit quite a defensive one.

Yet with an excellent generation set up for the future, for at least one cycle, the “Taegeuk Warriors” look to be in a better position than they were four years ago when superstar Son Heung-min was still 26 years old and was just starting to deliver the goods after his transfer to Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League.

“The past two World Cups editions were also great memories. This time, I tried to lead the team. Watching them do so well and getting these big experiences, it reminded me of what I was like when I was younger and I am very thankful for the players. Before coming to the World Cup, I said that I wanted to make this World Cup unforgettable. The team and Korean fans have made this World Cup unforgettable,” said Son after the loss against Brazil which sent Korea home.

It was a gigantic effort from the team’s captain, as he had suffered an eye fracture in the second to last match he was slated to play this November before the FIFA World Cup, in the win against Olympique Marseille, 2-1, in the UEFA Champions League group phase.

His presence at Qatar 2022 was touch and go, but Son was not going to see such a huge opportunity, to be Korea’s captain at the FIFA World Cup, thrown away. This is why he wore a mask throughout the whole competition and tried to become a leader on and off the pitch.

Indeed, this Korean team is loaded with talent in all positions, starting from the defence, where 26-year-old central defender Kim Min-Jae is a true stalwart and one of the main reasons his club, Napoli, is the leader of the pack and the favourite to win the title in the Serie A.

Hwang Hee-chan, a midfielder-cum-striker, was Korea’s hero in the win against Portugal, scoring the decisive goal in the 2-1 win, which saw the Asian side progress to the Round of 16 at Qatar 2022.

And in Cho Gue-sung, Korea might have found a new talisman, a viral hero, which has already been getting teams interested in his services, with European sides scouting him and trying to bring him into their rosters.

“It’s a shame to be leaving early. But we tried our best and gave it all that we have. I personally am proud of the players. But of course, I wish we could have stayed longer,” added Son.

But what is next for Korea?

First of all, there will be a new coach, as the longest-tenured manager in the history of the team, Paulo Bento, will be leaving after a four-year stint, as he brought back the team to the Round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 12 years.

“I don’t know how to thank him. It was just a great time, a great experience. He always put the players first and protected the players. I became captain after he took the reins and we have a great relationship. I learned so much from him and I can’t thank him enough for the last four years. I am very sorry to see him go but I want to wish him all the best,” said Son.

What’s clear is that the fans were happy with the team’s display, with over 30.000 of them flocking to the iconic fan zone in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square, braving predawn snow flurries and sub-zero temperatures to cheer for their side against Brazil.

It was 5 AM in Korea and nobody left until the end, despite the heavy loss against Brazil, 1-4. It was only apt because this team gave it all and deserved to be there. The next step is to find a new manager and maximize Son’s returns for the side. It will be hard, but he deserves it.

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