South Korea’s men beat fierce Asian rivals Japan 2-0 in the playoff for bronze on Friday to claim the country’s first-ever Olympic soccer medal.
Japan were bidding to emulate the Japanese team of 1968, who won bronze at the Mexico Games, but despite enjoying more possession, the Asian champions were twice unpicked by their opponents’ clinical counter-attacks.
Arsenal striker Park Chu-young and captain Koo Ja-cheol scored either side of halftime, as the Taeguk Warriors claimed a measure of revenge for the senior side’s penalty shoot-out loss to Japan at last year’s Asian Cup.
“This is one of the most special moments for me and my team,” Koo said. “I’m very proud to be one of the first footballers to become medalists in Korean history.”
Tthe final whistle sparked wild celebrations from the victors, while Japan’s players slumped to the turf in despair.
“I’m really upset about the outcome. We were able to play our football, but the result just didn’t follow,” Japan striker Kensuke Nagai said. “But it’s been a really good experience and I hope that we can achieve a better result next time.”
The intensity of the rivalry between the sides and the bumpy nature of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium playing surface, did not make for a high-quality first half.
The first opportunities that arose fell Japan’s way, but Hiroshi Kiyotake’s low curler was turned away by Jung Sung-ryong, while Hiroki Sakai’s header from a right-wing corner flashed narrowly wide of the far post.
The Koreans, who eliminated hosts Great Britain in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out, went ahead against the run of play in the 38th minute.
Park endured a dreadful debut campaign with Arsenal last season, making six appearances and scoring only one goal, but he looked every inch the international goal-scorer as he put Korea ahead.
Receiving the ball with a trio of retreating defenders blocking his path to goal, Park wrong-footed them all by sharply sweeping the ball to his right before beating Suici Gonda at his near post with a low shot.
Japan showed more enterprise after the interval, but in the 57th minute they were caught cold by another South Korean sucker-punch.
Park’s flick-on found Koo and the captain nudged the ball away from Daisuke Suzuki before drilling an unerring shot into the bottom-left corner.
Coach Hong Myung-Bo’s side almost killed Japan off moments later, but Kim Bo-kyung’s bending left-foot shot was superbly tipped onto the post by Blue Samurai goalkeeper Gonda.
Japan thought they had pulled a goal back in the 87th minute, but center-back Maya Yoshida’s header was ruled out for a foul on South Korean goalkeeper Jung.
South Korea’s players celebrated with extra relish after their defeat of Japan earned them exemption from military service.
The South Korean authorities had promised to spare the squad a stint in the armed forces — which is usually obligatory — if they secured the bronze medal.
Whether fuelled by delight over the result or relief at avoiding their spell in military fatigues, coach Hong Myung-bo revealed that the South Korean celebrations had got slightly out of hand.
“It is a big disaster in the changing room,” Hong said. “The players went crazy and threw everything about. I couldn’t go inside and had to wait outside until the press conference began. It was just crazy.”