Olympic medal in football

Occasion for another take-off, not complacency 

Many foreigners might have wondered about Koreans’ near frenzied reaction to their team’s victory over Japan in Olympic football Friday. If so, they don’t know at least two things: what football means for most Koreans, and what a victory over their archrival in this national sport signifies on a global stage.

It was the first football medal the nation has won after eight unsuccessful attempts in its 64-year-long history of participating in the quadrennial global athletic festival. That alone was historic enough.

Would it have been less thrilling if the opponents in the bronze competition were other countries, say, Brazil or Britain? Probably so, not just because Japan was Korea’s former colonizer but because the neighboring country has recently belittled Korean soccer as out of style.

The venue couldn’t be no more symbolic, either ― the birthplace of the most popular sport in the world. It was more remarkable in this regard that Korea beat the home team at the very home of football. Coach Hong Myung-bo and his squad of 18 deserve heaps of praise for their thorough preparation, indomitable spirit and perfect teamwork based on deep trust and confidence.

Some may say the performance was less important than Korea’s reaching the semifinals in the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup tournament. Maybe yes, Maybe no. But there are two differences: A decade ago, the feat was made on home turf, and thanks largely to a foreign coach, Guus Hiddink of the Netherlands. This time around, the opposite was true on both counts. This must sound a little too nationalistic, but it is hard not to become so even for purely athletic reasons in the competition of nations.

A cooler-headed analysis reveals some problems hidden behind the brilliant results, however.

First of all, few can deny the Korean footballers were motivated by a carrot that no others had ― exemption from mandatory military service. For now let’s suffice to say the young athletes have successfully turned what might otherwise have served as unbearable burden into a positive incentive.

Second, the Korean Olympic team was only a little short of the national A squad ― seven out of the best 11 also play in the World Cup preliminary round ― while its opponents, including the Japanese, had less.

Third, the performances were thanks more to teamwork and clever tactics than individual ability, especially basic techniques such as ball control and trapping, which were inferior to any of the final four teams.

All this explains why Korean football has a long way to go before turning some commentators’ optimistic predictions for the 2014 Brazil World Cup into a reality.

What’s left unsaid was the significance of the advances of two Asian teams in the Olympic semifinals. This best shows what competition in good faith can bring about. If only the relationship between Korea and Japan were like their soccer rivalry. Or, that may not be entirely impossible if only Tokyo were like their young football players ― admitting facts as they are. <The Korea Times>


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