Wednesday was day 14 of the 2018 World Cup and will never be forgotten. It ended with Mexican fans storming the South Korean embassy in Mexico City to sing, dance and force the consul to drink tequila, it brought acclaim to Seoul from around the world and brought despair to Germany.
The celebrations came after South Korea sent shockwaves through the football world by defeating Germany 2-0 in Kazan in the final group game of the 2018 World Cup to send the world champions home.
As BBC presenter Gary Lineker said at the end of the game: “Mein Gott!” The former England striker then looked into the camera, smiled and waved. “Auf Wedersehen.”
Fans were left stunned as this turned out to be a game of firsts: the Germans finishing at the bottom of their group and the first time the Europeans had failed to progress past the group stage since the 1938 World Cup. It was also the first time an Asian team had defeated a reigning world champion at a World Cup and the first time South Korea had defeated European opposition when the tournament was held on European soil.
Injury-time goals from Kim Young-gwon and Son Heung-min ensured a victory that was deserved. Had the Taeguk Warriors – missing a number of players through injury – been more clinical and composed on the counter-attack, the margin of victory could have been greater against a team that had reached the last eight at every World Cup since 1954.
In the end, the victory was not quite enough for South Korea to make it out of Group F and into the round of 16, their original aim. Had Mexico defeated Sweden in the other game then South Korea would have progressed, but Sweden won 3-0. That meant it was South Korea who did Mexico a favor.
The first two games had brought narrow but disappointing defeats against Sweden and Mexico and criticism had been growing back in Seoul. Expectations were low heading into the final game against the world’s number one team. It looked as if South Korea would be heading home with zero points and three defeats from three games. It would have been a depressing journey indeed.
Four years ago, the players landed at Incheon International Airport and stood stony-faced as a group of fans expressed their displeasure at a poor tournament and only one point by throwing a shower of traditional candy called yeot.
There won’t be any flying snacks this time. The World Cup has ended on a high, one shared by much of the football world, enjoying the fall from grace of a German team that is usually relentless in its pursuit of trophies.
South Korean football has been in the doldrums of late. The domestic K-League has seen attendances plummet in recent years from an average of 11,000 in 2010 to just over 5,000 so far this year. Television ratings, never high for domestic games, had fallen off the charts.
There had also been a decline in people watching the national team. From a high of a 66% audience share during the 2002 World Cup and 60% four years later, the average for the opening two games was 37%.
But some pride has been restored. “We’re not going to the last 16, but we did manage to beat the champions and the world number one team,” said Korea coach Shin Tae-yong after the game. “I hope we can build on that, manage to improve and do better in the future.”
That is the hope and the win may just mean that Shin stays in the hot seat to deliver that improvement.
The victory does not mean that all is not hale and hearty in South Korean football – just as it does not mean that German football has to reinvent itself – but it shows a nation that had fallen out of love with football what the game is all about and its unique ability to bring people from all around the world together.
The World Cup is something special and on Wednesday afternoon in Russia, South Korea made it a little bit more special.