The Captain at the top of his game, going all the way this time

South Korea’s soccer team is one of the strongest in Asia, but it hasn’t exactly been a force at the Asian Cup. Since winning back-to-back editions of the tournament in 1956 and 1960 in Seoul, they haven’t finished on top.

South Korea has been overtaken by Japan (four times), Saudi Arabia, and Iran (at least three times) in its trophy drought. Japan, the most decorated nation, has won the title three times in the 21st century alone. This is the backdrop for the 18th Asian Cup, which kicks off in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 12, and will be the first time in 64 years that the tournament will be held in Hanpul.

“We want to come back with the trophy after 64 years of waiting,” national soccer team coach Jürgen Klinsmann, 60, said in his Asian Cup entry.

Klinsmann is counting on “Captain” Son Heung-min (32, Tottenham), who is in the prime of his football career. He became the first Asian player to lead the English Premier League (EPL) in scoring, and his goal-scoring touch is at its peak this season with 12 goals (tied for third).

Son Heung-min is also uniquely motivated for the Asian Cup. South Korea’s top scorer at the tournament (four goals), he has appeared in three previous editions, starting with the 2011 edition in Qatar, but was unable to fulfill his dream of winning the title. At the 2011 tournament, the 18-year-old Son Heung-min scored on his A-match debut, but South Korea had to settle for third place. At the 2015 tournament in Australia, he was left in tears after scoring a dramatic equalizer in stoppage time in the final against hosts Australia. Son Heung-min is going into the tournament with a “third time’s a charm” mentality. Born in 1992, this may be his last tournament.

It’s good to see that he has a great group of teammates to help him. Hwang Hee-chan (28-Wolverhampton), a top-notch goalkeeper in his third year in the EPL, defender Kim Min-jae (28-Bayern Munich), who is aiming for the best in Europe beyond Asia, and midfielder Lee Kang-in (23), a starter at Paris Saint-Germain in France’s top flight. Lee Jae-sung (32-Mainz), Hwang In-beom (28-Zvezda), Cho Kyu-sung (26-Mitwylan), and Jung Woo-young (25-Stuttgart) provide support throughout. The number of Europeans, which has become the benchmark for elite members in Asia, has reached a record high of 12, making it the strongest ever.

Klinsmann’s fiery offensive tactics also raise expectations. South Korea’s new team colors are intimidating, with quick transitions and flanking attacks on opposing defenses. Since last year, South Korea has won six straight A matches and hasn’t conceded a single goal while scoring 20. At this rate, the team is expected to go on a winning streak starting with their first group game against Bahrain on Friday.

Sports statistics firm Opta has given South Korea a 14.8% chance of winning the Asian Cup, ranking them second behind Japan (24.2%).

If South Korea finishes first in their group, they could face Japan in the final. It would be the first time Korea and Japan have met at full strength since 2011 in Sapporo (0-3 loss). South Korea’s recent back-to-back 0-3 losses to Japan were not significant. A victory over Japan in the final of this 64-year-old tournament would be the ultimate icing on the cake.


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