The Wizardry of South Korea’s Win

The team’s advancement to the World Cup round of 16 is poised to shape an entire generation of South Korean soccer.

Hwang Hee-chan celebrates his team's victory
Hwang Hee-chan celebrates his team's victory (Quality Sport Images / Getty)

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The World Cup is never short on magic, and today, South Korea needed some.

After conceding an early goal to Portugal in the game’s first half, the Reds had fought back to level the match that could send them to the knockout stages of the competition. But a tie would not be good enough. They needed a goal. Then, just before the 66th minute, the camera panned to Hwang Hee-chan, who had begun to put his jersey on. I let out a small shriek in an agonizing mix of nervousness and excitement.

The South Korean winger plays his club football for my preferred Premier League team, Wolverhampton Wanderers; I know what he is capable of when he’s on his game. In his debut for Wolves, after signing on loan from RB Leipzig in the German top flight, Hwang showed his knack for being in the right place at the right time, tapping a ball into the back of the net to seal the win against Watford. Three matches later, brilliance again, as his knack for finishing saw him net two goals—including the winner—against Newcastle United.

But injuries hampered Hwang’s promising start. The goals dried up. In fact, he hasn’t scored in more than 25 league and cup fixtures for Wolves. His tendency to pick up injuries at the least opportune moments surfaced again just before the World Cup.

Until today, Hwang had not seen the pitch since a narrow 1–0 victory against Leeds United in the Carabao Cup in early November; there was worry in the South Korean camp that he would miss out on the tournament altogether. A week ago, just before South Korea played Ghana in its second match of the World Cup, the Korea Football Association shared a post on Instagram showing Hwang running again during training. But after he failed to feature in the game, it seemed that those worst fears might be realized.

As those thoughts informed my audible expression, Hwang entered the match. He looked bright from the beginning, showing flashes of his speed and ability with the ball at his feet. With Uruguay leading Ghana 2–0—meaning that the South Koreans would finish group play in third place and be eliminated, unless they scored—the Koreans pushed forward at every chance they had, often leaving their back line exposed by committing so many players toward Portugal’s goal.

Then the wizardry Korea needed arrived. In the 91st minute, Heung-min Son, Korea’s captain and a star forward for the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, raced up the right wing after a Portugal corner kick fell to his feet. Three Portuguese defenders closed down on him; four were tailing him. Hwang darted down the middle of the pitch with one defender on his outside hip. Son slotted the ball through the defense, and Hwang—right place, right time—angled it past the Portuguese keeper into the bottom-left corner of the goal. Bedlam. The camera panned the crowd as the Korean fans’ excitement welled into puddles under their eyes.

This is the second time in two decades that South Korea has gone through to the World Cup knockout stages by beating Portugal on the final day of group play. In 2002, South Korea won 1–0 and went on to enjoy its most successful tournament in the team’s World Cup history. Lining up across from them on the field that day in the early aughts was the coach of this year’s iteration of the Reds, Paulo Bento.

As I’ve written before, that was the World Cup that made me a fan. As the final whistle blew on that day, Korean players fell to their knees, and supporters hugged in genuine elation that their nation had done all it could to move forward in the competition. I can only imagine what Son and Hwang’s moment of magic has done for a new generation of Korean soccer fans.