AL RAYYAN, Qatar – On one end of the pitch, a South Korean donning a black carbon-fibre mask. On the other, a tall, slim ponytailed Uruguayan.
Both were touted as central figures in their nations’ opening World Cup Group H clash on Thursday.
But Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min and Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez could not conjure a goal – or even a shot on target – as the two teams played out a stalemate at the Education City Stadium. Remarkably, it was the competition’s fourth 0-0 draw.
The world No. 28 South Koreans had entered the game with the South Americans, ranked 14 places higher, seeking a third straight upset in as many days for an Asian team.
And while it was not quite the level of result pulled off by fellow Asian sides Saudi Arabia and Japan in the days before, the Taegeuk Warriors put up a spirited display and left the pitch with their heads held high.
Son said being able to match Uruguay gives them a little boost, adding: “We have an unbelievable young squad, amazing talent. I’m always telling them that they should believe more in their qualities.
“Obviously we missed something today, we could have scored some goals. But... overall this is very good performance from our team.”
There appeared to be an even number of red and sky blue shirts among the 41,663 spectators in the stands, but the support for the South Koreans was louder.
Much of this can be attributed to Son, a player almost universally loved in the football world.
As he strode across the pitch to take a corner in the second half, even the Uruguayan fans gave him a standing ovation, which he acknowledged with applause of his own. All eyes were on the 30-year-old South Korea skipper and how he would cope, having suffered an eye socket fracture three weeks ago.
Donning a protective mask, he did not appear to be affected by the injury, although he was not at the sparkling best he has so often displayed in recent seasons for Spurs either.
He was tightly marked by Uruguay’s veteran defender Martin Caceres, who at one point snapped away at the Korean star’s heel so closely he lost his boot.
Son’s best sight at goal came in the 51st minute but, as he burst into the box, he hesitated in pulling the trigger and the ball was nicked away by the 35-year-old Caceres with a sliding tackle. In the 90th minute, Son had another go at goal, this time from over 20 metres, but his shot zipped wide.
Both sides had game changers in their team – Son and the likes of Nunez, Luis Suarez and Federico Valverde for the South Americans – but blunt finishing meant neither found the net.
In the 22nd minute, Facundo Pellistri’s dangerous ball across the face of the goal was completely missed by Nunez, before South Korea striker Hwang Ui-jo blazed a shot over from eight metres out.
Uruguay came closer to scoring, hitting the woodwork twice. First, in the 43rd minute, captain Diego Godin saw his header crack the upright, before Valverde’s speculative shot from distance late on cannoned off the post and out.
While South Korea coach Paulo Bento said they showed that they were capable, his Uruguay counterpart Diego Alonso was pleased that they dominated their opponents in the second half, after struggling for the first 20 minutes.
The result means South Korea, who are in a tricky group with tournament dark horses Uruguay, Portugal (ranked eighth) and Ghana (61st), remain with a shout of making the knockout rounds.