‘Young Tai Chi Warriors’ reaches the final four for the second time in a row

Korea’s young Taegeuk Warriors will be looking for a third consecutive ‘four-peat’ at the U-20 World Cup.

The South Korean U-20 World Cup team, led by head coach Kim Eun-joong, will face Nigeria in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023 at the Estadio Unico Madre de Ciudades in Santiago del Estero, Argentina, on 5 May (local time). The South Korean U-20s, who finished runners-up at the 2019 tournament, will be looking to reach the last four of the U-20 World Cup for only the third time in their history, following Mexico 1983 and Poland 2019.

Nigeria reached the quarter-finals with a 2-0 win over Argentina, last year’s World Cup winners in Qatar and hosts of the tournament, in the round of 16. Nigeria is also a very strong team at the age group level, having finished as runners-up twice and third once at the U-20 World Cup. However, the defending runners-up and back-to-back quarter-finalists, South Korea, are also in high spirits, so this should be an entertaining quarter-final.

Korea and Nigeria have met twice at the U-20 World Cup

Nigeria are no strangers to South Korea. They have met five times in A matches, with a clear advantage of three wins and two draws, and the Olympic team have given Nigeria nightmares with four wins in a row. The U-20s have also met four times, with two wins and two draws, notably in the U-20 World Cup finals. This match will therefore be a test of the dominance of the two national U-20 teams.

South Korea and Nigeria were drawn in the same group with Brazil and Switzerland at the 2005 tournament in the Netherlands. At the time, South Korea had high expectations for their age-group squad following their quarter-final finish at the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. In fact, the team had a number of talented prospects, including Park Joo-young (Ulsan Hyundai Playing Coach), who was dubbed a “football genius” at the time, as well as Baek Ji-hoon (Bluebird) and Shin Young-rok (Young-rok Bar), who were expected to perform well.

After losing 1-2 to Switzerland in the first match of the group stage, South Korea needed to catch Nigeria in the second match. After conceding an early goal to Nigeria in the 18th minute of the first half, the Koreans were looking increasingly disheartened as they were unable to find an equaliser until the 40th minute of the second half. However, Korea equalised in the 44th minute with an exquisite right-footed free-kick from Park Joo-young, before Baek Ji-hoon completed the comeback with a dramatic left-footed finish in stoppage time to make it 2-1.

South Korea, who gave their all against Nigeria, failed to progress to the round of 16 three days later, losing 0-2 to Brazil in their third group game. Nigeria regrouped and finished second in Group F to reach the round of 16, then went on to beat Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Morocco in the tournament to reach the final. However, they had to settle for runners-up in the final, losing 1-2 to Argentina, who were led by the ‘monster’ that is Lionel Messi.

South Korea and Nigeria were drawn in the same group for the first time in eight years at the 2013 tournament in Turkey. After a 2-1 win over Cuba and a 2-2 draw with Portugal, South Korea lost 0-1 to Nigeria in their third group game. After finishing third in the group, South Korea beat Colombia on penalties in the round of 16 to reach the quarter-finals, where they met fellow Asian nation Iraq, who also lost 4-5 on penalties, denying them their first quarter-final appearance in 20 years.

Who will emerge as South Korea’s heroes in the quarter-finals?

Nigeria hasn’t made much of a mark at the World Cup, with three round of 16 appearances being their best ever. At last year’s World Cup in Qatar, they didn’t even qualify for the knockout stages after losing to Ghana on ‘away goals’ in the final round. At the U-20 World Cup, however, it’s a different story. Nigeria has consistently performed well at the tournament, starting with a third-place finish in the USSR in 1985, followed by runners-up in Saudi Arabia in 1989 and runners-up in the Netherlands in 2005.

This time around, Nigeria was drawn in the same group as traditional footballing powers like Brazil and Italy. Nigeria lost 0-2 to Brazil in their final group game, dropping them to third place, but defeated the Dominican Republic and Italy in their previous two matches to secure six points and advance to the round of 16. In the round of 16, they avenged an 18-year-old defeat with a 2-0 win over hosts Argentina, who had upset Nigeria in the final of the tournament in the Netherlands, to reach the quarter-finals.

South Korea also scored three goals in the round of 16 to defeat Ecuador 3-2, but they are considered somewhat of an underdog among the quarter-finalists, along with Israel, compared to teams that exploded for goals in the round of 16, such as the United States, which thrashed New Zealand 4-0, Brazil, which dominated Tunisia 4-1, and Colombia, which thrashed Slovakia 5-1. Furthermore, their quarter-final opponents are Nigeria, a traditional U-20 World Cup powerhouse who are on a roll after ending their bitter feud with Argentina.

This time around, South Korea doesn’t have a clear-cut ace to lead the team like they did in the last tournament when they had Lee Kang-in (RCD Mallorca), but the entire squad has been performing well, with new heroes emerging in every game, especially Bae Joon-ho (Daejeon Hana Citizens), who hadn’t done much in the group stage, but emerged as a new hero in the round of 16 with one goal and one assist. If the new players can play their part in the quarter-finals, they will have a good chance against Nigeria.

However, the fitness of the players will be a concern for South Korea in the quarter-finals. In fact, having played the round of 16 in two days, South Korea had one less rest day than Nigeria, who played the round of 16 in one day. However, with a young squad of players under the age of 20, ambition and momentum may be enough to overcome the fitness disadvantage. Let’s hope that the young Taeguk Warriors, who are continuing their great challenge on the other side of the world in Argentina, can defeat Nigeria and give football fans the news of a ‘second consecutive quarter-final’. 스포츠토토

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