South Korea's 1-0 defeat at the hands of Belgium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Thursday evening was a disappointing but fitting end to a campaign that most would like to forget, but all need to remember.
It was a game that summed up the country's World Cup -- a case of what might have been had opportunities been taken even if it never looked as if those opportunities would be seized. Here was an opponent in Belgium that had already qualified, was resting a number of stars and was down to 10 men for over half of the game. Nonetheless, the Belgians still looked pretty comfortable for almost the full 90 against South Korea. The Taeguk Warriors rarely threatened to score -- it looked as if they had forgotten how to. In the end, Korea were just not good enough.
The effort was there, it always is. The players gave everything, and if anything, perhaps tried a little too hard. Time and time again, coach Hong Myung-bo's men got within sight of the Belgium penalty area, but just never really had the creativity or the imagination to do anything of much note. Hopeful balls, overhit passes, blocked shots -- it was all on display here.
There were two changes made from the team that lost 4-2 to Algeria and they were significant ones. The positions that had been the cause of most debate over the past months had been filled by Park Chu-young in attack and goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryeong. Neither player impressed in the first two games, with Jung only wishing that his performances had been as anonymous as Park's. But mistakes against Algeria meant that was never going to be the case.
Big Kim Shin-wook came in after making a difference as a second-half substitute against the North Africans and Kim Seung-gyu, who had failed to displace Jung as No. 1 prior to the tournament, was in between the sticks.
Both were improvements but still couldn't make the difference when it mattered. Kim Shin-wook had been at pains to stress before the game that despite his height of almost 2 metres, he wasn't just a heading machine. But his presence does encourage the use of the long ball. In the absence of Vincent Kompany, it may not have been a bad idea, but all kinds of passes, short or long, went wrong. Korea worked hard but just couldn't find a way through the Belgian back line.
Ki Seung-yeung came the closest in the first half, drawing a fine save from a fine goalkeeper. Thibaut Courtois was equal to anything that came his way for a few minutes before the break when the Red Devil's back line was rocking a little. And it seemed to get worse for these dark horses as Steven Defour was red carded for a stamp on Kim Shin-wook's shin.
If it lifted Korea at the start of the second half, it didn't really show despite some attacking substitutions from the 2002 semifinalists. A casual observer would have been hard pressed to see which team had 11 and which had 10. Belgium defended stoutly and looked to get forward at every opportunity and Korea soon realized that opportunities were not simply going to materialize even with the increased space available.
There were lots of balls into the box, behind the defence and just floated in, but the vast majority were cleared, blocked or rolled out of play. It was only very late in the game that Korea got behind the European defence and caused some serious problems. But by that time, an equaliser and pride were the best that could have been hoped for. A place in the second round, never likely, was long gone. Son Heung-min, the team's best performer over the three games and the major positive from the tournament, was in tears at the end. It was all pretty depressing.
There was none of the drama and excitement of the second-round exit against Uruguay four years ago and none of the anger that accompanied the defeat to Switzerland in Germany and, of course, none of the pride that surrounded the team in its semifinal exit in 2002. Korea exited the World Cup with a whimper and without ever showing what they can do.