South Korea's World Cup hopes rest with Son Heung-min after Kwon Chang-hoon injury
The lucky 28 players who were named in South Korea's preliminary 2018 World Cup squad on May 14 were expected to turn up at the Paju National Football Centre seven days later for the start of a training camp. The walk from the gates to the clubhouse, down a long straight path that leads past a waiting pack of photographers, has become something of a tradition. Kwon Chang-hoon, however, will miss out on that rite of passage -- Korea's rising star is still in France.
There was not much to play for in the end-of-season clash between Dijon and Angers on Saturday. The home team was safely ensconced in mid-table while Angers were free of the relegation zone. It didn't stop Kwon embarking on one of those runs from the right wing in the direction of the penalty area with 14 minutes remaining.
Fans must have wondered whether the 23-year-old was going to grab goal number 12 of the season. Instead, he took a tumble under an innocuous challenge and that was it. It looked bad and on Monday it was confirmed that an Achilles tendon injury had ended his World Cup dreams.
To say it is a blow to the Taeguk Warriors is an understatement. Kwon has been in red-hot form for Dijon, a club he joined in January 2017. The right-sided midfielder with an explosive left foot, his all-round play has been excellent. For a young player in his first full season to be a standout performer in one of Europe's big leagues was truly impressive. Tottenham's Son Heung-min may get the headlines in the Premier League, but Kwon has been producing top-class performances for the whole season and ended the campaign as clearly Korea's most in-form player.
After making his name for Suwon Samsung Bluewings as a teenager, Kwon made his national team debut in 2015. The Seoul-born talent was not an automatic starter for the Taeguk Warriors until fairly recently but his form for Dijon has quickly made him one of Shin Tae-yong's most important players.
Even with Kwon at his best, expectations in Korea are not high given the toughness of Group F -- Shin's side have been drawn alongside Germany, Mexico, Sweden -- and the struggles the team experienced in qualification. There was, however, some excitement when it came to Kwon. After a great season in France, here was a player ready to show the world what he could do.
Now he is out and the direct replacements don't provide the same excitement. Coach Shin will not add any new names to the preliminary squad, so 28 names become 27. There is Moon Seon-min, an Incheon United winger who has yet to appear for the national team, and veteran of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups Lee Chung-yong, who has barely played for Crystal Palace this season.
With Kwon playing behind Son and the talented Lee Jae-sung on the opposite side, Korea had the potential to cause problems on the counter-attack. The defence may not be up to much but if those three players had clicked, then there was a chance. There are other worries. Son's potential strike partner Lee Keun-ho was stretchered off the pitch for Gangwon FC on Saturday with a knee injury, though the 2012 Asian Player of the Year should be fine for Russia.
The loss of Kwon means that Son is going to need to be at his very best. There is going to be even more pressure on the Tottenham forward.
It was just last week when the Spurs star told reporters in Seoul that he was quite happy if his Group F opponents singled him out for special attention at the 2018 World Cup in June.
"I don't feel any pressure when I hear that I'll be watched closely by the opponents," said Son.
"I actually want to enjoy it. If the opposing players focus only on me, that can actually give opportunities to my teammates."
One of the colleagues who could have taken advantage was Kwon. With Son leading the line and leading defenders on a merry dance, there could have been space and opportunities for the Dijon man to do what he does best.
Now Son, whose form dipped in the final stages of the season though he revealed last week he played with painkillers for the last six games, is going to have to be at his very best if Korea are to have any chance of getting to the last 16.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.