(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with more info; ADDS photos)
By Lee Haye-ah
SEOUL, Dec. 8 (Yonhap) -- President Yoon Suk-yeol hosted a dinner for the national football team on Thursday, saying he was deeply moved by their determined spirit that took them to the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
The dinner was held at the former presidential compound of Cheong Wa Dae, with the attendance of 21 players of the football team, head coach Paulo Bento, and other coaching and support staff.
The team returned from Qatar the previous day after reaching the round of 16 for the first time in 12 years.
"To South Koreans, you are the same as World Cup champion," President Yoon said in his welcome speech.
"Your youth and passion gave big comfort and hope to the people and the country suffering from difficulties in and out, and your fighting spirit delivered a strong mind that we can overcome any hardship," Yoon said.
Yoon added he always believes soccer can bring world peace, saying the players are "messengers of peace."
"I promise stronger support for the team so South Korea can have more confidence and enjoy the game in better conditions at the 2026 World Cup."
Team captain Son Heung-min and Bento expressed their thanks for inviting them to the dinner and for the nation's passionate cheering.
"I was very happy for the past four years ... I wish luck for South Koreans and everyone here with their careers," Bento said through a translator.
According to the presidential office, Yoon also said his heart was touched by the way many people stayed up or braved the subzero temperatures to cheer for the team with one spirit, and emphasized that the spirit of pushing toward a single goal, trusting in sweat and effort, and the spirit of not giving up until the end united the players and the people as one.
First lady Kim Keon-hee thanked the team for repaying the nation's ardent support with their success at the games.
Son put the captain armband he wore during the games around Yoon's arm, and presented the president and first lady with a ball and team uniforms signed by the players.
Yoon told Son he will bear all the responsibility and work hard to overcome difficulties the country faces, like Son did as the captain during the World Cup.