The 2017 Under(U)-20 World Cup kicked off with excitement on Saturday May 20, 2017 as the host country, Republic of Korea faced Guinea. You could feel the energy starting to build during the opening ceremonies which featured a flying soccer ball drone, traditional Korean dance, and the up and coming K-Pop group NCT dream performing the tournament’s anthem, “Trigger the fever.” The fever was truly palpable when the whistle blew and chants of, “대한민국!” (Dae-han-min-guk, Republic of Korea) erupted from all corners of the sold out Jeonju World Cup Stadium. I attended the game with two fellow ETAs and we were treated with a game full of skill and class by both sides. For much of the first half the game was even, with the two teams going back and forth until Korea’s Lee Seung-woo, Barcelona youth product, ended the deadlock on a deflected shot outside the penalty box. Except for the lone goal, the parity between the two teams continued well into the second half until Korea pulled ahead with two late second half goals (with one being by fellow Barcelona youth product Paik Seung-ho) en route to a 3-0 victory.
After the match ended the Korean players walked around the field, in customary soccer fashion, thanking the supporters in all parts of the stadium. You could tell just how much the players wanted to win as they had the added pressure of the host country playing in front of over 35,000 plus with the majority of them rooting for Korea. Now that the game was over and they secured the full three points, the players celebrated and showed their appreciation to the fans for all their support. Although this is just a U-20 World Cup, I could tell from discussion with fans, my host family, and my co-workers just how important it was for Korea to play well in this tournament. Leaving the stadium we had met a Korean-Canadian who had came all the way from Canada to attend all of Korea’s World Cup games. I thought that was really remarkable.
This was the first major world soccer tournament held in South Korea since the 2002 World Cup, which saw Korea as a co-host going on a historic run to the semifinals. I’ve heard stories from my host family, who are not soccer fans, about just how crazy the fever was back then. The whole country got behind them as they enjoyed incredible success at that tournament. I had felt similar sentiments for this year’s U-20 Korea side, albeit on a smaller scale, as they aimed to play well and set the tone heading into an Olympic year for the country. Fulbright Junior Researcher, Yung-ju Kim, who did a study about the 2018 Olympics noted how part of their preparation for such a large scale event was to host smaller international events, like the U-20 World Cup, in order to be ready to host a successful Winter Olympics.
Although Korea lost in the Round of 16 to a talented Portugal side, the country can take pride in the way they played for most of the tournament which saw them defeating traditional soccer powerhouse Argentina and providing a stern test to eventual champion England in group play. The tournament itself was run smoothly from all accounts and involved some intriguing storylines. For example, Vanuatu a South Pacific island nation, is the smallest country with a population of around 275,000 people to ever reach the World Cup and were tied with a historically soccer strong Mexico, until Mexico was able to score a last minute game winner. The final pitted the tournament’s two strongest sides, England vs Venezuela, with England winning their first ever U-20 World Cup 1-0.