Kim Eun-Joong’s U-20 team lost a heartbreaking 2-1 to Italy in the semifinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023 at the La Plata Stadium in Argentina at 6 a.m. ET on Sept. 9, conceding a 41st-minute goal to Simone Papundi. Kim Eun-Joong-ho, who was looking to reach the final for the second straight tournament after the 2019 edition in Poland, will continue his journey in the third-place match. They will face Israel. At that tournament, South Korea finished as runners-up, losing to Ukraine. It was South Korea’s best-ever FIFA performance in men’s soccer. South Korea lost to Italy for the first time at the U-20 level. Italy went on to reach their first ever final.
Kim Eun-Joong-ho is a miracle that no one expected. The team was initially considered the underdogs due to their lack of star players, but they’ve been winning like crazy. After a thrilling 2-1 victory over France in their first group game, South Korea drew with Honduras (2-2) and Gambia (0-0) to finish second in their group. This is the first time Korea has reached the round of 16 unbeaten at a U-20 World Cup. They defeated Ecuador 3-2 in the round of 16 and then beat Nigeria 1-0 in extra time in the quarterfinals. However, they fell short in the quarterfinals.
Throughout the tournament, Kim did not benefit from the refereeing decisions. It started in the first group game against France. There was an outrageous call. In the 21st minute of the second half, a cross came in from the left. Kim Jun-hong threw his body out to block it, colliding with opposing striker Efekele in the process. It was a normal play by Kim Jun-hong. In fact, he even made Efekele feel like he was rushing him. Kim was elbowed by his opponent and was unable to get up for a long time. As he got up, the referee pulled out a warning and awarded a penalty kick. There was no video assistant referee (VAR). The reaction from the Korean bench was one of disbelief.
Birnizius converted, allowing the Koreans to take the lead. The momentum shifted and they could have tied the game, or even taken the lead, but Korea remained focused until the end. Kim Jun-hong, who should have been panicking the most, stayed focused and blocked the opponent’s attacks until the very end. In the end, Korea secured the victory.
The bad calls continued in the next game. Against Ecuador, unfavorable decisions such as no penalty kicks were awarded, and against Nigeria, there was talk of favoritism, with decisions favoring Nigeria at every turn. You have to admire the players who didn’t waver.
The quarterfinals were no different. Of course, two VAR decisions went in our favor. Bae Joon-ho’s penalty kick in the first half was awarded via VAR, and a header in the second half was disallowed for crossing the goal line. But the referee’s whistle was different.
The most disappointing moment came in stoppage time. Bae Seo-joon was pushed down by the opponent’s defense in the final minutes, but the referee didn’t see it as a foul. A free kick here would have given us a great chance. We had an exquisite kick from Lee Seung-won.
But in the end, the whistle didn’t blow and we missed our last chance. We fought well and lost. It was a disappointing defeat that we can’t help but think about the refereeing disadvantage.