Korea's football team has a tough road ahead before it fulfills its dream of winning an Olympic medal. After settling for a draw with Gabon in the final match of the group stage on Thursday, Korea finished as runner-up in Group B, and will face Group A winner Great Britain in the quarterfinals of the London Olympics.
Team GB will have a huge home crowd firing it up at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in Wales in the early hours of Sunday morning. But even if Korea manages to clear this giant hurdle, a more galling prospect looms in the form of Brazil, its likeliest opponent in the semifinals.
Korea gained five points from one win and two draws to finish second to Mexico in Group B, the first time it has advanced from the group stage at the Olympics since Athens 2004.
In its last game against Gabon, Korea played before a huge crowd of 76,927 at Wembley Stadium, some13,000 shy of full capacity. Korea had several chances early on but failed to convert any into a goal, which led to a tedious wave of ineffective attacking moves that frustrated both the players and the fans. Korea managed just two goals in its three group matches.
At the post-match press conference, manager Hong Myung-bo said the players were feeling drained by the Olympics' demanding schedule, which sees them get just two days' rest between matches, compared to three during the World Cup.
He said the players poured everything into the first two matches against Mexico and Switzerland, but failed to show their usual vivacity and energy in the game against Gabon. "The players know that stamina is an issue. We’ll do our best to recover in the two days we have," he said.
On the plus side, Korea's back line has been doing a grand job, putting to bed fears that the team would be undone by a leaky defense. A strong midfield made up of captain Koo Ja-cheol, Ki Sung-yueng, Park Jong-woo is also considered one of the most formidable at the London Games. If Korea beats Great Britain in Wales, it will likely face Brazil at Old Trafford in Manchester for a spot in the final at Wembley.
The Korean team relocated to Cardiff on Thursday. The quarterfinal will be held at the 74,500-capacity Millennium Stadium, home of the Welsh national team. Only Welsh and English players are competing under the Team GB flag – the first time it has flown in the Olympic football competition in 52 years -- as the Scottish and Northern Irish federations chose not to participate.
Of the 18 players on the roster, five are Welsh, including Ryan Giggs of Manchester United, Craig Bellamy of Liverpool, Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal, and Swansea's Joe Allen and Neil Taylor.
Perhaps viewing Korea as an underdog and potential pushover, the British media have been preoccupied with analyzing the home side's chances against Brazil rather than poring over its immediate opponent.