SEOUL • Military service exemption may be a crucial factor which motivated the South Korea Under-23 football team to win Asian Games gold last Saturday, but coach Kim Hak-bum insisted that he did not talk about it with his players before the final against Japan.
The Koreans retained their title in Jakarta with a 2-1 win in extra time thanks to goals from Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan.
That victory earned the team, spearheaded by Tottenham's Son Heung-min, exemption from 21 months of mandatory national duty.
All able-bodied South Korean men between ages 18 and 35 must serve in the military but athletes who win either an Asian Games gold or a medal of any colour at the Olympics are granted exemptions.
"I've never talked about that," Kim said at a press conference at the Korea Football Association yesterday. "I thought that issue couldn't come ahead of our match. We only focused on winning games.
"Before we entered extra time, I told our players to look into each other's eyes. I really wanted to encourage them. When you're tired, you have no thoughts and you hear nothing. That's why we gathered in the circle and shouted so that we could stay awake."
Kim added that he also told his players not to read comments on social media during the Games, especially when the team were blasted following their 2-1 group-stage defeat by Malaysia. "I told our players to read those online comments if they were confident enough of staying calm even after seeing them," he said.
"For me, I didn't even read news articles. It made me comfortable."
Goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, 25, who with Son were two of three overage wildcard picks for the Asian Games team, was omitted from the senior team for friendlies this month against Costa Rica and Chile due to a knee injury.
Head coach Paulo Bento takes charge of his first game since replacing Shin Tae-yong last month when his team take on Costa Rica today.
Son, 26, who is likely to be his captain, said on Wednesday that he is looking forward to Bento's training programme for the senior team.
"Bento doesn't miss small things, and he gives orders in detail. I really have big expectations with our national team," Son, who captained the U-23 team, said as reported by Yonhap news agency.
"With the Asian Games title defence, I think South Korean football is having a good mood. We will not betray fans' expectations."
Bento, who confirmed at his pre-match conference yesterday that Son will start against Costa Rica, echoed the thoughts of the Tottenham forward.
"They won the title at an important period," he said. "It's important to maintain this good atmosphere for national teams of all age levels."
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK