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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

South Korea’s ‘zombie football’ finally leaves them in a hole too deep to climb out of


AL RAYYAN, Qatar — In the thunderous confines of Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, history was made.

Jordan, for the first time, will play in the final of an Asian Cup.

They will do so deservingly, Yazan Al-Naimat and Musa Al-Taamari inspiring their nation to a 2-0 win over South Korea. In what was also The Chivalrous Ones’ first-ever continental semifinal.

They hardly gave their opponents a chance, proving disciplined, robust, resolute, and, above all else, lethal as they eliminated their more highly-fancied foes in a manner that could have left South Korea able to blame nobody but themselves.

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Indeed, before the game, Jordan coach Hussein Ammouta had spoken above all else of the need to get his tactics right. “You will not see any rival team with less passion, less focus, or less will to win,” he said. “We need to focus, we need to develop our tactical side.”

Just over 24 hours later, as his emotional players streamed onto the pitch in celebration, he was validated. The Moroccan had gotten things bang on and will now get a chance to cement an unprecedented legacy.

A golden generation of Taegeuk Warriors, meanwhile, has seen a chance to end their nation’s long, long wait for another Asian crown come to an end. 64 years of waiting will now turn into at least 67 and, for players like 31-year-old Son Heung-Min, there will be no guarantees of how much they will be able to contribute when the tournament makes landfall in Saudi Arabia in 2027.

Post-mortems will undoubtedly commence immediately, even as players like Son and Lee Kang-In head to the airport to immediately return to their clubs in Europe. And inevitably, coach Jürgen Klinsmann will be in the spotlight.

Because, while semifinal elimination in itself carries no shame, South Korea’s exit on Tuesday evening almost carried with it a sense of inevitability, a nagging sensation that this wasn’t some kind of mammoth upset so much as it was this team, finally, not being allowed to get away with anymore by an opponent that would create chances and then take them.

South Korea’s stylings had been christened “zombie football” by its supporters. It was a reference to their ability to, somehow, bring themselves back to life and find a way to keep moving onward.

They’d scored in the 91st minute to draw with Jordan in the group stages. In the 94th minute of a 3-3 draw with Malaysia. In the 99th to keep their round of 16 games with Saudi Arabia alive before moving to penalties. They’d netted in the 96th minute to force extra time with Australia in the quarterfinals and then in the 104th to win it.

And resilience, team spirit, and a refusal to ever stop running and fighting are indeed incredible qualities to have — some coaches centre them at the core of the teams they attempt to build.

But to stage an incredible run of late comebacks and heart-stopping goals by necessity requires one to fall into a hole to begin with. A zombie cannot bite unless it has been brought to the point of death first and its victim has proven unable to escape its shuffling grasp.

By the end of the opening 45 minutes in Al Rayyan, Jordan had sent ten shots in on Jo Hyeon-Woo‘s goal, four of them on target, compared to just the four that had been sent in on that of Yazid Abu Layla, with none of these attempts actually on a trajectory that would have seen them hitting the target.

This was despite their 61% of possession resulting in 31 entries into the final third compared to 16, and 13 moves into their foe’s penalty area against Jordan’s seven.

It was a familiar script to the one that had been read against the Socceroos just days prior, a technically gifted team full of frighteningly talented attackers crashing like waves against an opponent that was being put in a strong position to succeed and then execute.

South Korea was playing uninspiring football, with no real sense of creativity and a distinct amount of sloppiness. As soon as Jordan got on the ball, meanwhile, they were immediately looking to drive forward and create threats.

In just the fifth minute, Nizar Al-Rashdan seized on a high turnover and drilled a shot goalward that forced Jo to spring into action. A minute later, Ehsan Haddad blasted from either further out but still with enough power to send a scare through his opponents.

In the 19th minute, with his side yet to be officially credited with a penalty area entry, Son was played in over the top and flicked a shot home, only for it to be called back for a clear offside. Four minutes later, his side had their first clear attack as Seol Young-Woo got to the byline but Lee skied his shot well over the bar.

But Al-Naimat was soon threatening, driving forward and forcing a save from Jo in the 25th before sending a bicycle kick high and wide a few moments later. Almost immediately afterwards, a horrific pass from Kim Young-Gwon — playing as part of an almost all-Ulsan HD backline with Seol and Jung Seung-Hyun after Kim Min-Jae‘s suspension — sent a pass straight at Al-Taamari, who drove forward and shot high and wide.

Jordan were coming and South Korea needed a circuit breaker.

And they did come close with a decent final 15 of the first half. They were denied a penalty thought to have been won by Seol after VAR moved to overturn it, Yazan Al-Arab the one that was actually fouled. Hwang In-Beom lifted a Seol cutback well over the bar from the top of the six-yard-box on the stroke of halftime with a chance that should have been buried.

But unlike in previous games, Jordan were not going to allow them off the hook.

Just eight minutes into the second half, a disastrous pass from Park Yong-Woo sold Kim into all kinds of trouble, allowing Al-Taamari to steal the ball away. Al-Naimat quickly moved to surgically make his way between the two retreating centrebacks and receive a perfectly placed ball into his path, before finishing over the top of Jo.

The Jordanian contingent of the 42,850 fans in the stands, which felt like most of them, exploded. If you hadn’t brought ear protection, you quickly wished you had.

At this point, if you were the South Koreans, you were probably concerned but not yet in fear. You’d come back from this before, after all. Zombies and whatnot.

Yet when Al-Taamari drove forward, Hwang falling over as he did, and drilled an effort into the bottom corner of the net, that’s when you started to panic. 2-0.

Saudi Arabia and Australia had only scored once and now South Korea were showing clear signs of fatigue after needing to go 120 minutes in back-to-back games against two good, strong sides. Indeed, perhaps the Socceroos and Green Falcons can take some solace from softening their vanquishers up for Jordan.

Nonetheless, the Taegeuk Warriors tried to respond. Cho Gue-Sung had been thrown in after the first goal and Lee got in being the Jordan defence in the 70th minute, only to be denied by a magnificent sliding challenge by Mohammed Abu Hasheesh.

But in another difference to previous games, they weren’t trying to break down a parked bus. Jordan was obviously retreating more than they had done but Al-Naimat’s break forward in transition in the 87th minute still gave their opponent reason for pause.

And when Cho was booked for diving in the immediate aftermath of that attack when he tried to get something going up the other end, the writing appeared on the wall. Individual talent was not going to be enough.

Klinsmann opened his press conference that Jordan deserved the win. He was right.

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