South Korea’s Kim Eun-Joong-ho will try to reach the final of the U-20 World Cup. The stage is set for the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023 quarterfinal against Italy on Sept. 9 at 6 a.m. ET at La Plata Stadium in Argentina. A victory over Italy would mark the second consecutive time South Korea has reached the final of the tournament, following Jung Jung-Yong-ho’s triumph in 2019.
Now, it’s just a matter of capping an emotional journey into the final. Prior to the tournament, Kim was flying under the radar as part of the so-called “Valley Generation”. Without a star player like Lee Kang-in (Mallorca) four years ago, the public’s interest in South Korea’s soccer team was relatively low, but Kim Jung-ho stuck together as a “one-man team” and impressed. South Korea’s unbeaten run (3 wins, 2 draws) to the quarterfinals of a FIFA-organized tournament was the first in the country’s history, 21 years after the 2002 World Cup in Korea-Japan.
Kim won’t be satisfied with the quarterfinals. If they beat Italy, they will be eligible to play the winner of Uruguay-Israel for the title. A must-win semifinal gateway to challenge the world’s best. All eyes will be on Lee Young-joon (20) and Kim Jun-hong (20-plus Gimcheon Commerce), two players from the Armed Forces Athletic Corps (Commerce).
The 1.90-meter striker has played virtually every minute of every game at the tournament. His only substitution came in the final minute of extra time against France in Group 1. He played the entirety of the second group game against Nigeria and the quarterfinals. His role became even more important when Park Seung-ho (Incheon United) was forced to withdraw due to injury.
He has struggled in the front line even in exhausting conditions. He rattled the French and Ecuadorian nets and picked up an assist against Honduras. In the quarterfinals against Nigeria, which went the full 120 minutes, he was applauded for doing his job as a frontline striker despite being subjected to harsh and relentless fouls from the opposition. He showed his presence throughout the tournament, not only as an attacking point but also as a link-up player and space creator.
Not only did he utilize his length to play in the post, but he also showed off his individual skills and technique, making him one of the next generation of attackers. In particular, against Ecuador, he made a big splash by trapping Bae Jun-ho’s (Daejeon Hana Citizen) cross with his chest and then shooting nonstop to split the goal.
His talent was noticed early on. He signed a semi-professional contract while still in high school and turned pro in 2021, setting a record for the youngest debutant in K League 1 at the time (17 years, 9 months, 22 days). After two seasons with Suwon FC, where he recorded one goal and two assists in 29 games, he has been serving his military service since this year. Coach Kim Eun-joong once described him as “a player with the potential to explode once he has the physicality to do so.” This tournament showed that potential.
While Lee Young-joon has been on the front line, Kim Jun-hong, the ‘enlisted man’, has been protecting the goal from the back. He has conceded five goals in four games. Like Lee, Kim turned pro after signing a semi-professional contract with Jeonbuk 메이저놀이터 from Jeonju Hyundai U-18 team Jeonju Youngsanggo. He appeared in four games over two seasons and kept one clean sheet before being released. He is the son of Incheon United legendary goalkeeper Kim Yi-seop, and was coached by Lee “Spiderhand” Woon-jae before joining the military. Coach Kim said, “He is a player who works hard every moment. He is a player who works harder than anyone else with clear motivation.”
Kim made his presence felt in the first group game against the favorites, France, with a save. The French attempted a whopping 24 shots on goal, but Kim did not concede a goal, except for a penalty that was disallowed due to a questionable call. He was suspended for the final match against Honduras after receiving a second bookable offense, but once he was cleared, Kim was trusted enough to be handed the goalkeeping gloves again. In the quarterfinals against Nigeria, Kim stopped 22 shots in 120 minutes of hard-fought action to help South Korea reach the quarterfinals.
As a member of the Sangmu team, he is not only a part of the national anthem but also of the ceremonies. Lee Young-joon has already performed the colossus salute twice as a goal celebration, and after the round of 16 win over Ecuador, he greeted the fans with it side by side. If they do it again in the quarterfinals, Kim’s chances of reaching the final will increase. ‘Glory to the nation, here we come’. It’s almost time to make this chant a reality.