(ATTN: ADDS comments in last 6 paras, photo)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 23 (Yonhap) -- In light of his team's upset win over France to kick-start the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina, South Korea head coach Kim Eun-jung said he couldn't have asked for more from his players.
Captain Lee Seung-won registered a goal and an assist to lift South Korea past France 2-1 in Group F in Mendoza, western Argentina, on Monday (local time). South Korea and Gambia, who beat Honduras 2-1 later Monday, both have three points to lead Group F.
"Because France came in as a title favorite, we tried to tighten up our defense and look for counterattack opportunities," Kim said in a post-match interview. "The players executed those plans really well."
Lee scored South Korea's first goal in a counterattack chance in the 22nd minute. Lee then got an assist on Lee Young-jun's header with a free kick just past the hour mark. France had their lone goal on a penalty by Alan Virginius in the 70th minute.
"France pushed us hard toward the end, but our defenders stayed focused through the end and kept France from scoring again. I am grateful for that," Kim said. "Some players played to the best of their abilities, but some didn't. The most important thing, though, is that every one of 21 players came together and knew what they had to do in today's match."
There are six groups of four in this tournament. The top two teams from each group will be joined by the four best third-place teams in the round of 16. South Korea, runners-up at the 2019 tournament, are going for their third straight knockout trip at this biennial event. The 2021 competition was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Korea's next match is against Honduras on Thursday, followed by Gambia on Sunday, both back in Mendoza.
"The matches against Honduras and Gambia won't be easy," Kim said. "Now that the first match is in the books, we'll prepare hard for the next one and try to play a good match."
Captain Lee, the offensive hero in the victory, said his celebration of the opening victory won't last long.
"We'll have to grab as many points as we can in the three group-stage matches, and so I am only going to enjoy this victory today," Lee said. "We'll try to stick to our identity against Honduras and Gambia."
As for beating France despite losing the possession battle and getting outshot, Lee said: "I figured France would have an edge in individual skills, physicality and speed. But I think we showed our strength in teamwork and transition."
Lee Young-jun, the other goal scorer for South Korea, said he was just as happy to hold France to one goal as he was to have scored for his team.
"We saw France as one of the title favorites, and we were really prepared for this match," Lee said in a video clip shared by the Korea Football Association. Lee is fulfilling his mandatory military service with the K League 2 club Gimcheon Sangmu FC and celebrated his goal with a military salute.
"Honestly, I was nervous before the kickoff. But we were able to execute things we'd worked on and minimize the damage," Lee added. "We also spent a lot of time working on set pieces, and I am really pleased to have scored in an important spot."
With matches being held on the other side of the world from South Korea, which is 12 hours ahead of Argentina, Lee noted that not many fans back home may be able to stay up or get up early in the early morning hours to watch the U-20 national team. The France match kicked off at 3 a.m. Tuesday in South Korean time, and the next two matches will start at 6 a.m. Friday and next Monday.
But even if fans may only catch highlights, Lee still asked them for continued support.
"Whether our fans get to watch us play or not, I'd like to tell them that we're doing our best over here," Lee said. "We will try to bring home great results."