AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Son Heung-min has found the World Cup a struggle, but left it late to make his most telling contribution to South Korea’s cause in Qatar on Friday, setting up a dramatic injury-time winner against Portugal which sent the Taegeuk Warriors roaring into the tournament’s last 16.
Racing into the Portuguese half in the 91st minute, the Tottenham star was crowded by four opposition shirts – as he has often been in here – but slipped an inch-perfect through-ball for Hwang Hee-chan, who finished low past Diogo Costa in the Portugal goal.
The goal helped lift Korea above Uruguay and Ghana, who faced each other in the other Group H game played at the same time, allowing them to join the already-qualified Portuguese in the knockout stages.
It was a sensational end for the world No. 28 Koreans, who had the odds stacked against them heading into the game. They needed to beat world No. 9 Portugal and also needed Uruguay to overcome Ghana – but not by too much, as the South Americans could have progressed at their expense, on goal difference.
In the end Uruguay obliged, beating the Africans 2-0.
Korea’s skipper and star attacker Son, who was in tears after a 3-2 defeat by Ghana four days prior which severely dented their hopes, had a spring in his step. After the coin toss between the two team skippers – a meeting of iconic No. 7s with Portugal legend Cristiano Ronaldo – Son sprinted off to join his teammates, darting left and right.
But Korea conceded after just seven minutes, when Diogo Dalot breezed past Kim Jin-su into the penalty box to set up Ricardo Horta to blast home from close range.
That shook the Asians from their slumber and in the 27th minute, Kim Young-gwon swept home an equaliser from close range, following a fortuitous bounce off Ronaldo’s back. The big defender had also scored the first goal in their famous 2-0 win over Germany at the 2018 World Cup, with Son getting the second.
In the tunnel before the second half, Son pumped his right fist into his left hand, trying to get his teammates pumped up.
No doubt, they were aware of the proceedings in the other game – Giorgian de Arrascaeta had scored twice for Uruguay already by that point – and knew that just one goal was enough to help them advance for the first time since 2010, when they exited in the round of 16 of the tournament.
They were aided by Portugal deciding to substitute Ronaldo in the 65th minute to preserve him for their last-16 tie on Tuesday against the runners-up in Group G.
Hwang In-beom lashed a fierce shot from the edge of the box which stung Costa’s gloves in the 67th minute but that was as good as it got for the Koreans, who struggled to fashion clear-cut opportunities to score. Until Son’s inspired dribble late on.
The Koreans still had to endure a long wait after their game – if Uruguay had scored one more goal they would have progressed on goal difference – but will now face the winners of Group G on Monday.
Even if they end up being five-time champions and tournament hot favourites Brazil, their players will be lifted to think they can pull off the improbable once again.