South Korea’s tie with Nigeria coupled with Argentina’s win over Greece ensured South Korea advancing to the knockout rounds for only the second time in their World Cup history. We all vividly remember the last time in 2002 when they co-hosted the World Cup with Japan and advanced all the way to the semi-finals before falling to Germany. That riveted an entire nation and bonded many Koreans living around the world. It also bonded parents with their children.
Yesterday was a hard fought game that required some luck for them to salvage a tie. Nigeria had great opportunities to score goals but in the end, the soccer God’s were smiling on South Korea as they secured the tie and advanced to meet Uruguay on Saturday morning.
Korea Republic recovered from the loss of an early goal to draw 2-2 against Nigeria in a gripping contest at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on Tuesday. The result sees the Asians through to the Round of 16 as second-place finishers from Group B behind winners Argentina, and they will meet Group A winners Uruguay in the first stage of knockout play on 26 June in Nelson Mandela Bay. Nigeria, with just one point from their three matches, are heading for home to ponder what might have been.
The Nigerians, in dire need of a win to stay alive, dodged a bullet in only the second minute, when big Danny Shittu’s horrid clearance fell to the feet of Park Chu-Young in a dangerous position on the right. The Monaco man’s low cross was picked out well by the sliding Lee Chung-Yong, who sacrificed his body in a collision with Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama only to stroke wide of the near post.
After that early scare, Nigeria began to boss the play with their best moments of these finals. Coach Lars Lagerback opted for four attacking players in his starting XI, including Nwankwo Kanu, used for the first time in South Africa. The positive approach paid off, the Super Eagles taking a lead in the 12th minute. Chidi Odiah wriggled his way up the right side with a classy piece of approach work and his low cross was nailed into the corner by Kalu Uchu, who had snuck around his marker. The goal was met with a roar from the home crowd, in need of a boost after their beloved Bafana Bafana were eliminated earlier in the day.
Nigeria continued to push forward as the half wore on, with Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi going close and Kanu and Yakubu Ayegbeni combining well in the advanced positions. The Koreans – who looked so organised in their first match – were getting pushed around and losing their shape as the half wound down. Uche nearly doubled his tally in the 36th minute, only to see his shot from distance slam off the upright to a groan from the crowd. The Asians, against the run of play, took full advantage and drew level with their first shot on goal, Lee Jung-Soo heading home while unmarked at the back post after a free-kick delivered by Ki Sung-Yueng seven minutes from the interval.
The Koreans came out in the second half looking lively. After Lee Young-Pyo tested Enyeama in the opening seconds, danger man Park Chu-Young curled his direct free-kick around the wall and inside the back post from the corner of the penalty area to put the Taeguk Warriors on top 2-1 with just minutes gone. Pockets of lively Korean fans were growing in confidence and voice, singing the anthems that propelled their men to the semi-finals as hosts in 2002, but they were nearly silenced when Yakubu was clear in on goal in the 59th minute. Only a last-ditch tackle from Cho Yong-Hyung kept the big Everton man from a certain equaliser.
‘Yak’ was at the heart of the action again shortly after, missing a sitter from six yards in the 66th minute, before showing the guts to step up to the spot three minutes later and draw his side level after Obasi was felled in the area. A frenzied half-hour followed, with both sides going agonisingly close to tipping the balance and substitute Obafemi Martins missing a golden breakaway chance. But it was the Korean players celebrating at the final whistle while Nigeria became the third of six African participants to fall at the first hurdle.