By Yoo Jee-ho
GWANGJU, July 14 (Yonhap) -- The scoreboard showed South Korea fell to Hungary 64-0 in a women's water polo game at the FINA World Championships on Sunday, but by the looks on the faces of South Korean players, you'd have thought they were on the winning side.
Such a lopsided score could have broken the spirits of most young athletes, but these South Korean water polo players aren't your average young athletes.
The neophyte team was assembled barely two months ago in preparation for the competition in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. This is a collection of former swimmers, mostly teenagers, who are only happy to be participating in their first world championships in a new sport and harbored zero expectations about what they could accomplish against some of the best teams in the world.
Oh Hee-ji, the team's oldest player at 23 doubling as captain and starting goalkeeper, didn't look the part of a netminder who'd just let in 32 goals on 34 shots. She said she was pleased with the team's overall efforts and her postgame speech wasn't about pointing out mistakes -- of which there were many -- but about cheering everyone up.
"I just said they all did a great job," Oh said. "I think we did better than we expected. There is a lot of room for improvement, and we'll continue to work hard for upcoming matches. This is no time to get hard on these players.
In addition to her words in the locker room, Oh has been trying to lead by example in the pool. Her broken nose hasn't completely healed, and she was also playing with a sprained elbow and ligament damage in her finger.
She went in without any taping because she didn't want to show her younger teammates that she was hurting.
"I am the goalkeeper, and I am supposed to be the backbone of the team," she said. "If I show my weaker side, I think it will affect the morale of the whole team."
Song Ye-seo, who recorded South Korea's first and only shot on goal in the loss, said she and her teammates are determined not to put too much stock into scores in the tournament.
"After the game, we told each other we'll try to do better next time," Song said. "We're still a fledgling team. It was an honor to play a team that we'd only watched on YouTube."
Song's shot from the left wing came about five minutes into the first quarter. It wasn't strong enough to beat Edina Gangl in the Hungarian net, but it will still go down in the record books as the first shot by a South Korean women's water polo team in the world championships history.
But Song's prevailing emotion at the moment wasn't that of joy.
"As soon as I fired it, I thought, 'I should have shot it harder,'" she said. "But we have four more matches remaining (in the preliminary round and the ranking playoffs). I'll try to take more shots."
What did she think when Gangl made the save?
"I had to hurry and get back on defense," Song said with a laugh.
During the buildup to the world championships, the oft-stated objective for the South Korean team was to score at least one goal. The task won't get any easier with other giants Russia and Canada coming up next, but both Oh and Song haven't lost their sight of their goal.
"Before today's game, we were thinking along the lines of, 'Well, it'd be nice to score a goal,'" Song said. "Once the game started, we realized the Hungarian players were really physical and skilled, and they were quite fast too. But we still played hard, and we'll try to get that one goal."
Oh added: "We're all desperate for a goal. Hopefully, the girls will make smart passes when they have opportunities and help each other."
South Korea will next face Russia on Tuesday, followed by Canada on Thursday.