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Stars on Olympic football team embrace veteran responsibilities

10:08 July 17, 2021

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, July 17 (Yonhap) -- Selected as overage veterans on the under-24 South Korean men's Olympic football team, forward Hwang Ui-jo and midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon understand the weight of responsibilities on their shoulders.

Teams competing in the men's football tournament at the Tokyo Olympics can select up to three players over the age limit. And head coach Kim Hak-bum selected Hwang and Kwon for a reason. Hwang is one of South Korea's most dangerous strikers, and led his French club, FC Girondins de Bordeaux, with 12 goals this past season. Kwon, who has spent time in Germany and France before U-turning to South Korea this year, is a creative playmaker who can also score. He's also the only player on the team with prior Olympic experience, having represented the country at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Hwang Ui-jo of South Korea (L) battles Modibo Sagnan of France during an Olympic men's football tuneup match at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on July 16, 2021. (Yonhap)

And as the team's two oldest players, Hwang, 28, and Kwon, 27, have also been asked to be the voice of reason in the locker room and mentors for younger teammates.

Both embraced those roles from the get-go.

"When I first joined the team, the first thing on my mind was that I didn't want to put any more pressure on those young guys," Hwang said Friday, after South Korea lost to France 2-1 in their final Olympic tuneup match. The South Korean team departed for Tokyo on Saturday.

"Competing at the Olympics will put enough burden on them as it is, and I didn't want to be the old guy who makes it even more difficult," Hwang added. "I've been telling them to enjoy the experience and have fun."

Kwon, the quieter of the two, was even more subdued than usual in the postgame press conference. Kwon scored South Korea's only goal with a penalty in the 63rd minute, but the team couldn't make it stand by blowing that lead with 10 minutes remaining.

The soft-spoken leader, though, knew exactly what he had to do.

Hwang Ui-jo of South Korea (C) collides with the French goalkeeper Paul Bernardoni during an Olympic men's football tuneup match at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on July 16, 2021. (Yonhap)

"I want to make sure the guys don't get down on themselves too much," Kwon said. "We all have to pull for each other. Losing is still disappointing, and we don't want it to become a habit. But we know we all gave our best out there tonight."

Kwon said he does feel the pressure of having to produce offense every time he steps on the pitch, given his position as a hired gun.

"I've been trying to blend into the team as much as I can," Kwon said. "If I can maximize my strengths, I should be able to help the team."

The gregarious Hwang said he wants to keep communication flowing on the field to ensure better chances on offense.

"Attacking players have to keep talking and pay attention to small details," Hwang said. "To take our shots and score goals, we've got to get closer to the net first. To do that, we have to be better with our details."

Kwon Chang-hoon of South Korea takes a penalty against France during an Olympic men's football tuneup match at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on July 16, 2021. (Yonhap)

Both players said they weren't concerned about team cohesion, even though they've joined the rest of the U-24 group less than a month before the Olympics. Most of their teammates have been together since the Olympic qualifying stage in 2019 and only had the two tuneup matches this week to try to get on the same page with the new veterans.

Considering several off-target passes intended for Hwang, there's still work to be done on that front.

"Even though I was a late comer, I was already familiar with a lot of players," Hwang said. "And I've done my part trying to fit in."

Kwon said he had been keeping close tabs on the Olympic team well before he was selected, and was already familiar with the coach's philosophy and structure.

"We have to sacrifice for each other. Then we can compete against the best of them," Kwon said. "We're all chasing the common goal. Most of the guys will only get one chance to play in the Olympics (because of the age limit), and I am not here just for my own good. We're all in this together."

Kwon Chang-hoon of South Korea (L) is congratulated by his teammates after converting a penalty against France during an Olympic men's football tuneup match at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on July 16, 2021. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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