If there’s one thing that will really stick with me from this morning’s World Cup action, it isn’t Mexico spending 90 minutes stress-barfing all over themselves. Neither is it the shock of defending champion Germany failing to get out of the group stage. What I’ll most likely remember long after this World Cup crowns a winner and for years after that is this image:
I can only wonder at what was going through the South Korean players’ minds in that moment, just seconds after they had knocked off Germany in a stunning 2-0 upset only to discover that it all meant nothing—that they’d be going home anyway because Mexico had failed to return the favor and beat Sweden. There is almost no other scenario in sports in which players could find themselves simultaneously ambushed with such conflicting emotions. Over the course of about 15 minutes the South Koreans went from experiencing the creeping dread of an increasingly likely 0-0 draw or 0-1 loss, to the blinding, exhilarating thrill of a 2-0 win, all followed in swift succession by the cruel comedown of learning it changed exactly nothing and helped them not at all. What comes after all that? Pride? Devastation? Some sort of perverse euphoria?
I’ll never know exactly how the players felt, of course, but I do know that watching South Korea play their asses off for 90 minutes made for one of the more inspiring spectacles of this World Cup. Fans and commentators love to sing the praises of teams and players that step up when the stakes are highest, but there’s also something to be said for giving everything when the stakes are obscured. South Korea came into today’s game knowing that even if they played perfectly and somehow managed to defeat a much more talented German team, there was no guarantee that their efforts would amount to anything. They were facing not just the long odds presented by their superior opponents, but those presented by their broader circumstance. They looked all that in the face and then went on to win the hell out of a soccer game.
In doing so they did everything an underdog is supposed to do. They packed it in and rabidly defended every German attack; they ran hard on every counter attack and kept running hard even as each one fizzled in increasingly frustrating fashion; they never for a second looked ready to accept their role as a station on Germany’s redemptive path. If there was one player who seemed to buoy the team, it was keeper Cho Hyun-woo. He saved six shots on goal and repeatedly jumped into the fray to claim dangerous balls in the box. It takes a kind of bravery to play that way against a team with the size and attacking prowess that Germany presented.
No moral victory is ever an adequate substitute for the real thing, but maybe there’s some solace in the fact that the same circumstances which made today’s result such a crushing one for South Korea will also make their victory one that won’t be soon forgotten. Once Mexico’s meltdown had reached its full suck-o zenith, the entire soccer-watching world was fixated on South Korea. They didn’t disappoint themselves or anyone who was watching, and for a brief moment they were the stars of a tournament that had already closed itself to them. If any team playing in this morning’s games truly deserved to advance, it was South Korea, but teams don’t always get what they deserve. Sometimes they just get a glorious moment, and sometimes those moments end up mattering more than the results.