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Chasing knockout berth at Women's World Cup, top scorer sees parallels with men's tournament

Jan. 31, 2023 - 11:03 By Yonhap
Ji So-yun, midfielder for the South Korean women's national football team, trains at Munsu Football Stadium in Ulsan, some 310 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Monday. (Yonhap)

ULSAN -- Preparing for her third FIFA Women's World Cup, South Korean star Ji So-yun couldn't help but notice parallels with the men's national team at their World Cup in Qatar last year.

Starting in July in Australia, South Korea will play in Group H at the Women's World Cup against Colombia, Morocco and Germany: a South American team, an African side and a heavily favored European team, respectively.

The South Korean men also played in Group H at their tournament against Uruguay, Ghana and Portugal: a South American side, an African team and a European team favored to win the group.

The men beat some steep odds to squeak into the knockout stage. They held Uruguay to a goalless draw before losing to Ghana 3-2, but a 2-1 victory over Portugal sent them into the round of 16. South Korea dropped to Brazil 4-1 in the first knockout match, but the Taegeuk Warriors were still lauded for their effort and collective "never-say-die" attitude.

Should the Taegeuk Ladies make it to the round of 16, they could also meet Brazil there.

"I've noticed similarities with our groups. And we're all going to try to match the men's success and reach the round of 16," Ji told reporters at Munsu Football Stadium in Ulsan, some 310 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Monday.

It was the first day of training camp for the Arnold Clark Cup, a four-nation invitational tournament scheduled to kick off in England next month.

"I watched all of the men's matches at the World Cup, and they did a tremendous job," added Ji, South Korea's all-time leading scorer with 65 goals in 142 matches. "As a fellow player, I was impressed with the way they battled so hard until the end to beat Portugal and get to the round of 16. It ignited a fire inside me."

At the Women's World Cup, South Korea, world No. 15, will kick things off against 27th-ranked Colombia on July 25 in Sydney and then take on world No. 76 Morocco on July 30 in Adelaide.

South Korea will finish their group play against No. 2 Germany on Aug. 3 in Brisbane. Coached by Colin Bell, South Korea will try to reach the knockouts for just the second time, after first doing so in 2015 in Canada. At the 2019 World Cup in France, however, South Korea lost all three group matches.

"We had such a disappointing World Cup four years ago. We want to do better this time and go as far as we can," Ji said. "Colombia will be tough to handle, but we will try to win the first two matches to book our spot in the round of 16."

As for the prospect of facing world No. 8 Brazil, Ji said: "Hopefully, we will have a different result than the men did. Once you get to the knockouts, you never know how things will play out. But first thing first, we want to get to the round of 16."

To that end, Ji said facing tough European teams at the Arnold Clark Cup will be an important learning experience for South Korea.

They will face world No. 4 England, 17th-ranked Italy and No. 20 Belgium. England and Italy will also play at the World Cup.

Ji played for Chelsea FC Women from 2014 to 2022, winning multiple trophies with the English club and garnering several individual honors as well. She knows a thing or two about high-level English players. And England are the hottest women's team now, working on a 26-match undefeated streak under coach Sarina Wiegman.

"When we play England, my teammates will see the type of players they have never faced before," Ji said. "Physically and mentally, it's going to be quite a challenge. But it's also a great opportunity to measure ourselves against a tough team and to see how far we've come along."

Ji herself is a question mark for the Arnold Clark Cup, though, as she is still not fully back from a recent ankle surgery.

"The rehab hasn't gone as quickly as I'd hoped, but I am not going to rush anything at this point," Ji said. "The World Cup is more important than this upcoming event. So I will take my time getting ready for the World Cup.

Ji, about three weeks from her 32nd birthday, hinted that this year's World Cup won't be her last. When she left Chelsea to sign with the domestic club Suwon FC Women last spring, Ji had said she wanted to stay closer to the national team so that she could better prepare for what could be her final World Cup.

"Four years later, I will be 36. I think I'll have enough left in me for another World Cup," Ji said. (Yonhap)