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[World Cup] ‘Again 2002’ is on fans' minds as South Korea faces Portugal in do-or-die match

Nov. 30, 2022 - 19:52 By Yoon Min-sik

South Korea’s heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Ghana in the Group H match of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 on Monday has put the team in a bit of a pickle. It now faces Portugal, the only undefeated team in the group, in a do-or-die match.

South Korean fans are hoping history would repeat itself in the upcoming Group H match: In the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, South Korea defeated the heavily favored Portugal squad in the final group stage match.

The situation was similar, albeit not exactly the same. Back then, it was do-or-tie situation -- with South Korea advancing with a win or a tie. Another difference is that Portuguese Paulo Bento is now on our side: Having played on the Portugal squad in 2002, he is now the manager of the South Korean team.

But it is similar in a sense that South Korea is facing an uphill battle against a much-favored, perennial powerhouse opponent. The Portugal squad in 2002 was a formidable foe indeed, advancing to the semifinals in the UEFA Euro 2000 and led by 2000 Ballon d’Or winner Luis Figo.

Going into the 2002 match against Korea, Portugal -- ranked fifth in the world -- was heavily favored to win. It was also in desperate need of a win to secure its berth in the knockout stage, having been upset by the lower-ranked US in a previous game.

South Korea was leading Group D prior to the match, but only by a slim margin. A loss to Portugal could still result in its elimination, if coupled with a US win over Poland.

The South Korean national soccer team trains at the Al Egla Training Facility in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday, ahead of the final Group H match against Portugal slated for Saturday, Korean time. (Yonhap)

2002: Knocking Portugal out of World Cup stage

Up until the 1990s, the South Korean squad had a relative weakness when it came to physical plays. But the 2002 squad under the leadership of manager Guus Hiddink had tough physique and seemingly endless stamina, stifling Figo and the so-called "Golden Generation" Portugal squad whenever he touched the ball.

Increasingly desperate Portuguese players got more physical as the game went on, which reached the pinnacle when Joao Pinto was ejected with a rough tackle from the back against Park Ji-sung, who was then a young prospect but would later become one of the best players in the nation's history.

Things only got worse for Portugal when Beto was ejected 66 minutes into the match with his second yellow card. It was by this point when Portuguese manager Antonio Oliveira structured a defense-oriented squad, as the imminent Poland victory over the US in the other match meant that both South Korea and Portugal could reach the top 16 with a draw.

But Hiddink kept Poland’s lead a secret from most of his players, except for captain Hong Myung-bo and veteran Yoo Sang-chul, and the players kept battering Portugal’s defense. Seventy minutes into the game, Lee Young-pyo’s cross found its way to Park, who netted a goal with his left foot.

With the 1-0 victory over the powerhouse Portugal, South Korea moved to the knockout stage for the first time in its history. Portugal as a result was eliminated.

'Again 2002'?

In 2002, South Korea was ranked 40th in the world compared to Portugal being ranked fifth.

Two decades later, the Portuguese squad is ranked ninth and is led by Cristiano Ronaldo, compared to 28th place of captain Son Heung-min's squad.

But the outlook is bleaker than ever for the Taeguk Warriors. Portugal has had a solid outing in Group H while South Korea has yet to register a win.

Whether the Koreans will pull through and relive the miracle of 2002 will be determined when the two teams square off at 12 a.m. Saturday, Korean time, or 6 p.m. Friday, local time, for the final match of the group stage at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar.

South Korean captain Son Heung-min (left) and Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo (Yonhap)