Fans and pundits alike placed their hopes on a Japan vs Australia final in the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup. It seemed to be the logical choice - two highly ranked teams, players playing all over the world, consistent appearances in World Cups and the works.
However, what we have before us for Sunday’s final is a true underdog story, a David-vs-Goliath clash in which a decorated China PR, the most successful team in the tournament’s history, takes on an unheralded South Korean outfit for top honours.
The gravity of the task is not lost on the coach, who has been training the Taegeuk Ladies since 2019 and China has come in his way before. The Koreans lost to the Steel Roses in extra time in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualifiers, a heartbreak that has in many ways fanned the flames of this team’s ambitions.
“The girls are fit enough to go for 120 minutes, if necessary, in penalties,” Colin Bell added, the similarities between the two instances hard to pass off as a coincidence.
‘Ready for China’
China is unbeaten in its last seven women’s internationals against Korea Republic (W5 D2 – including a draw in extra time) and picked up a 2-1 win the last time the two sides met at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup (2014 Third Place Playoff). Bell put any worries about the pressure of these stats to rest.
“Concern? For China maybe. It’s time for that series to end. We’re ready for China and we’ll give them a good game. If we just go by stats like this then we shouldn’t be in this tournament at all,” he added.
The war cry is as gentle as they come but Bell and his Korean side mean business. Their blueprint has never been day to day, it’s always been focussed on the big picture. That journey has not been without its challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic adding to the obstacle course.
“The year 2020 was very difficult for everyone in the world and we were only able to play two matches. That was a setback. But that’s changed now. The girls are talented and my main objective has been to get them to a different fitness level and also a higher confidence level. They need to believe in themselves and believe that they can progress in tournaments and get to finals. This is the first time and it underlines the confidence and faith we have as a coaching staff in our girls. I don’t need to show Ji (So-yun) how to play football, but we can increase her confidence level and the tactical flexibility that the team has to now be able to change and adapt,” Bell said.
Playing close to 11 matches in the last few months has hugely helped this side which got almost no game time before its Olympic qualifiers. That heartbreak has been dealt with and this unit long switched targets, setting its sights on the 2023 FIFA World Cup.
“Qualifying for the Olympics is obviously special but I would put the Asian Cup and World Cup above that because these are football tournaments and I am a footballer,” he added.
For Ji, South Korea’s top goalscoring and brightest hope in attack (four goals in the tournament so far), this is an opportunity not only to inspire but also to give a country healing post COVID some joy.
“It took 17 years for me to get into the final of an international tournament in my career. No words can describe the desperation of myself and my players. You’ll see it in the match,” the Chelsea midfielder said.
“I hope our performance gives joy to the people of South Korea. I hope our achievements give young girls in Korea the confidence to not give up on their hopes to become footballers,” she added.
The upset-loving 2022 edition of the tournament presents one last opportunity for a shock and South Korea will hope to embrace it with open arms, because what’s at stake is not just silverware but a chance at forging a formidable reputation for itself on the world stage.
“This [final] proves to the girls that with discipline and hard work, they can get past strong teams and that’s precisely what we want when we head to the World Cup. Our first aim of course is to get out of the group stages and into the later stages. We want to be able to go into the World Cup with every nation taking South Korea seriously as a capable and competitive team that can win titles,” Bell concluded.
South Korea takes on China in the final at 4:30pm IST at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on Sunday.