As the pressure mounts on his team to end the country's decadeslong title drought at the top Asian football tournament, South Korean midfielder Hwang In-beom said Monday he wouldn't have it any other way.
South Korea, world No. 23, will take on 87th-ranked Jordan in the semifinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in Qatar at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Qatar, or midnight Wednesday in Seoul. They are two wins away from capturing their first Asian Cup title since 1960.
South Korea has won two close knockout matches to reach the last four, whipping a passionate fan base into a frenzy. Ahead of a seemingly winnable match against Jordan, the weight of expectations on the team may seem unbearable to some.
Hwang insisted he is not fazed by it.
"As a football player, you always face pressure to perform, be it with the national team or with the club. It's not unique to this tournament," Hwang said at his prematch press conference at the Main Media Centre in Doha. "And I think it's a privilege for an athlete to be in a pressure-filled situation, as opposed to playing under zero expectations. We as a team have been able to shake off that pressure because we're motivated to deliver good results for our fans who've shown us so much faith. Obviously, there will be pressure on us to win tomorrow, but that shouldn't be a problem."
The hard-working midfielder has had an up-and-down tournament, marked in almost equal parts by moments of his typical excellence and some uncharacteristic mistakes.
Hwang said he isn't one to live in the past and that he won't let his earlier miscues bother him.
"I am not going into tomorrow's match thinking, 'Oh, I can't afford to make mistakes,'" he said. "Mistakes are part of football. When they lead to goals by the opposing team, you obviously have to go back to them and figure out what went wrong. But during this tournament, I want to focus on the task at hand and think about ways to help the team. And I think we've been able to come this far in the tournament because we've only been thinking about trying to win the next match and nothing else."
Hwang thanked his teammates for picking him up when he got down on himself for committing mistakes and said he'll be ready to do the same for them.
"I am glad that I didn't end up playing an individual sport," Hwang said. "I am so proud of having the teammates that I have. I feel very lucky that I have shoulders to lean on in football. And when other guys make mistakes or have a bad day on the field, I want to be there for them."
South Korea's path to the last four hasn't exactly been smooth. They had a 2-2 draw against Jordan in the group stage on Jan. 20, needing a last-minute own goal by Jordan to eke out that point. Then they had a 3-3 draw against minnows Malaysia to close out the group phase.
In the round of 16, they beat Saudi Arabia 4-2 in the penalty shootout after tying the score at 1-1 during second-half stoppage time. And another stoppage-time equalizer saved South Korea from a 1-0 loss to Australia in the quarterfinals, as they went on to take that match 2-1 in extra time.
South Korea has conceded eight goals so far. No Asian Cup champion has allowed that many goals. The most recent champions, Qatar in 2019, gave up just one goal in their seven matches.
When informed by a reporter that no country had won the AFC title with such a porous defense, Hwang responded, "If you're trying to tell me that we're not going to win the championship, then I'll say that we're ready to write a new history."
"I think it's positive that we've scored a ton of goals to get this far," said Hwang, whose team has netted 11. "We will try to prove that we can still have the last laugh even though we've conceded many goals."
The South Korean defense will have a gaping hole Wednesday, with their best center back, Kim Min-jae of Bayern Munich, having picked up his second yellow card of the tournament late in the quarterfinals. But Hwang said he wasn't worried.
"Just because Min-jae won't play, it doesn't mean our defense will be shaky," Hwang said. "We have guys who've been preparing for this moment behind the scenes, and I know how great they are. Whoever steps in tomorrow will play well."