KASHIMA, Japan, July 18 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean men's Olympic football team almost had a brush with the novel coronavirus over the weekend, even before the start of their competition in Japan.
Ryu Seung-min, a South Korean member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), was diagnosed with COVID-19 after arriving in Japan on Saturday. The football team had been scheduled to be on the same flight with Ryu but took a different, earlier flight instead following a last-minute change.
Given the recent surge in new cases in and around Tokyo, infections involving Olympic officials or athletes may end up being par for the course during the July 23-Aug. 8 Olympics. But Kim Hak-bum, head coach of the South Korean Olympic football squad, said Sunday he had faith in the team's health and safety protocols.
"We'll make sure no one from our team tests positive during the Olympics," Kim said in an interview prior to the team's first practice in Kashima, about 110 kilometers northeast of Tokyo. South Korea will play the first two of their three Group B matches in that city, starting with Thursday's match against New Zealand.
"We have our own program that will allow us to prepare for the Olympics thoroughly," the coach added. "We're not worried about the situation around us."
Kim and his players spent some six hours at Narita International Airport after landing there Saturday afternoon. They all had to be tested and then had to wait for results before being cleared to leave.
"It was so frustrating to see how slowly things were being processed," Kim said. "We couldn't practice yesterday as we'd planned because of that long wait. The players were exhausted, and so we'll focus on recovery for today."
After New Zealand come Romania next Sunday and Honduras on July 28. The top two teams from each of the four groups will reach the quarterfinals.
South Korea failed to win any of their last two tuneup matches on home soil, getting a 2-2 draw against Argentina last Tuesday and then losing to France, a potential quarterfinals opponent, 2-1 on Friday.
Those results may have dampened medal hopes among supporters from the passionate football nation, but team captain Lee Sang-min said the players remain confident as ever.
"After playing France, we didn't get much sleep before boarding our flight (Saturday morning), and we spent a lot of time at the airport here," Lee said. "But we got our rest and we all feel great. I think we've been able to recover so quickly because we're so driven."
Lee, a centerback, will face a stiff challenge right out of the gate, with New Zealand set to send Burnley striker Chris Wood up front to lead their attack.
Wood, 29, is one of New Zealand's two overage players on the under-24 squad. He has scored in double figures in four consecutive Premier League seasons, including 12 this past season.
"I've watched a lot of clips to study his tendencies," Lee said. "If one-on-one coverage doesn't work, then we'll put multiple bodies on him and play help defense."