Tuesday 11 June 2019, 22:39

Gwangyeon at his best on the biggest stage

  • Korea Republic beat Ecuador in an exciting semi-final

  • Goalkeeper Lee Gwangyeon made a spectacular stop in the closing seconds

  • “Our mental strength is our biggest asset”

Ecuador’s glimmering hopes of continuing their ground-breaking run at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019 were extinguished Tuesday by Lee Gwangyeon.

Korea Republic held a precious 1-0 lead as the clock ticked into stoppage time in their semi-final when Ecuador left-back Diego Palacios surged down his flank and sent a cross into the penalty area. Waiting for it on the edge of the six-yard box was Leonardo Campana, who rose between two defenders and made firm contact to send the ball towards the net.

It looked as if Campana would level the tie until Gwangyeon sprung into action. The Korea Republic goalkeeper made a stunning reflex save to push the ball out for a corner. The Taeguk Warriors' tireless legion of fans in Lublin celebrated the stop as if their side had scored.

“All the credit has to go to the other players and the coaching staff,” said the self-effacing keeper after the match. “We’ve all worked hard and put everything we have into this. Their support and effort are crucial to any success that happens out there on the pitch.”

Eyes on the prize

It had been a match of contrasting halves, with the Asians dominating and taking the lead in the first and the roles being reversed in the second as La Tri pressed for an equaliser, forcing Korea Republic to draw on their biggest strength.

“Our most important asset as a team is our mental approach,” said Gwangyeon. “Whatever happens, we always try to stick together as a team and have the same mindset. That’s the secret behind our run so far.”

Though the Korea Republic players were all smiles and hugs when the whistle blew, the celebrations will not last long, as they now have a final against Ukraine to prepare for. Twenty-four sides went into the competition dreaming of such an occasion, and only two have made it.

“Our number one priority will be to recover physically,” Gwangyeon said. “Today’s match was really tough and we put a lot into it. I have a lot of faith in our coaching staff, though, and I’m sure we’re going to do it. We’re going to watch some videos and try to find a way to beat Ukraine, who will be tough opponents.”

So how would it feel to lift the trophy on Saturday 15 June in Lodz?

“An absolute honour," he said. "That’s the only way to describe it.”

Did you know?

Lee Gwangyeon started out as a right-back before one of his coaches, believing he was better suited to making saves, suggested he try his luck between the posts. Fortunately for the thousands of fans following Korea Republic on their Polish adventure, the player took his coach’s advice.