South Korean striker Cho Gue-Sung said his side’s win over Portugal “really feels like a miracle”.
Both sides entered injury time locked up at 1-1 before Hwang Hee-Chan scored from a brilliant counterattack off the back of a Portuguese corner.
They won the match 2-1, and the South Koreans formed a circle in the center of the field to watch the end of the Uruguay and Ghana game on several mobile phones – their future in the tournament hinging on that result.
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They needed Uruguay to not score another goal against Ghana in the final six minutes of that clash.
Some South Korean fans prayed. Others were crying, just like captain Son Heung-min in the players’ huddle.
At the full-time whistle of that game, they celebrated. South Korea advanced to the round of 16 on the tiebreaker of goals scored, pushing Uruguay into third place.
Both teams finished with four points and both had a goal difference of zero, but the Asian team scored four goals compared to Uruguay’s two.
“We never gave up,” Son said through tears. “Our players were trying to run an extra step more, sacrificing themselves, and that allowed us to achieve a good result.”
When the Uruguay-Ghana game finished 2-0 and South Korea was sure of its second-place finish, the players on the field erupted in joy and squirted water in the air.
Then they got in a line and sprinted toward their fans behind one of the goals at Education City Stadium before performing a penguin dive in front of them.
South Korea were heading out of the tournament when a Portugal corner got cleared and Son led a length-of-the-field breakaway in the first minute of added time.
He got crowded out by Portugal’s retreating defenders but had the presence of mind to slip a pass through to Hwang Hee-chan, who converted a low finish past goalkeeper Diogo Costa.
Hwang, who came on as a substitute for his first goal at the World Cup, removed his jersey – for which he was yellow carded – and flexed his muscles. Some of his teammates fell to the ground. But there were still five minutes more of stoppage time to play.
When the final whistle blew, Son – who was sobbing with joy – and other teammates fell dramatically to the turf, banging their fists.
South Korea coach Paulo Bento, who is Portuguese, waited patiently in the tunnel while the Uruguay-Ghana match played to a finish. He couldn’t be with his players because he was serving a suspension for a red card in South Korea’s last game.
Hwang didn’t play in South Korea’s first two games because of injury but entered as a 66th-minute substitute against Portugal. He said the coaching staff told him: “You’re going to create something.”
Portugal had already advanced after two games and won the group, assuring Cristiano Ronaldo of at least one more match in Qatar as he seeks his first World Cup title in likely his final attempt.
“What we achieved here is special,” Son said, “and I am so proud of our players.
“Making the last 16 was our goal. We did our best every game, but you just can’t predict what happens in football.”
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