Jo Hyeun-woo – South Korea’s accidental World Cup hero

When the World Cup started, South Korea’s choice of goalkeeper lay elsewhere. Jo Hyun-woo used this surprise opportunity to make a name for himself.

The South Korea manager Shin Tae-yong was very secretive regarding his team selections and tactics coming into the 2018 World Cup, doing absolutely everything in his power to ensure his tactical plans didn’t get out. He switched the squad numbers of his players around at every opportunity and was very unwilling to speak to the media. Prior to Korea’s Group F opener against Sweden Tae-yong even accused his opponents of spying on his training camp. The claims were quickly disregarded by most, but even if there had been spies, it is doubtful they would have made tactical adjustments based off one of the more surprising decisions – a change in keeper.

With an air of mystery hanging over the side, the manager clearly had one or two surprises that he was waiting to unleash on his country’s opponents. It was widely presumed that Premier League stars Ki Sung-yeung and Son Heung-min, as well as Europa League semi-finalist Hwang Hee-chan, would be involved, but there were definitely places up for grabs.

However, there hadn’t been much debate about who would be in goal for the Koreans, with most people expecting Kim Seung-gyu to be starting. The stopper who plays his football for Vissel Kobe in the top division of Japanese football, the J1 League, has 31 caps to his name, has won the Asian Champions League and played every minute of South Korea’s East Asian Cup victory in 2015. More recently he started 10 of the Taeguk Warriors’ World Cup qualification matches keeping seven clean sheets.

So, when Jo Hyun-woo’s slight figure was seen between the sticks for South Korea’s World Cup opener, it will have shocked many. As his shirt number 23 suggests, he had gone into the tournament as the third choice behind Seung-gyu and Cerezo Osaka’s Kim Jin-hyeon. The unexpected chance to start came despite failing to play a single minute in the World Cup qualification campaign, and only making six appearances for his country before the World Cup, with two of them coming in South Korea’s 2017 East Asian Cup win.

But, as one of the standout keepers in the group stages, he has certainly used the opportunity to impress. In their opener against Sweden, Ola Toivonen had reached a ball which was bouncing uncertainly in the box, pushing it through the crowd and into an opening. Marcus Berg came steaming through to get onto the end of it, side-footing the ball towards the net for what should have been a certain goal. However, the South Korean threw himself down to save it with his legs, before springing back up, beating Berg to the follow up and punching it out of play. While many felt Sweden’s striker should have done better with his effort, it was an undeniably brilliant piece of goalkeeping from Hyun-woo.

South Korea’s stopper made various other interventions in this match, including a reaction save from a Toivonen header. However, he was eventually beaten from 12 yards when Kim Min-woo brought Viktor Claesson down in the box. It was Andreas Granqvist who stepped up to take it, sending Hyun-woo the wrong way and slotting the ball into the bottom corner. It must have been incredibly frustrating for the 26-year-old. Even the harshest of supporters couldn’t have expected much more from him, yet the man from Seoul found himself on the losing side.

This type of narrative will feel disappointingly familiar to Hyun-woo. When he came out of Sun Moon University in 2013, he headed straight to Daegu FC, who he has been in and out of the South Korean top division with ever since and still represents. The current campaign highlights the struggle he and his team mates have faced – the North Gyeongsang Province outfit sit bottom of the K League 1, have the worst goal difference in the league, have conceded more than any side in South Korea’s top tier and Hyun-woo has only managed one clean sheet this season (against Incheon United who sit second from bottom).

Despite this poor record in the current campaign, Hyun-woo has managed to make a name for himself, gaining plaudits for his shot stopping, agility and his ability to command his area. He won the Golden Glove award in the K League Challenge (which is now K League 2) in 2015 and 2016, bagged the accolade in the top tier last season, and was placed in the K League Best XI – despite finishing eighth out of 12 teams in the league. He has even earned himself the nickname Dae Gea – after Spain and Manchester United number 1 David de Gea – due to his exploits between the sticks for Daegu as well as his slim build. Hyun-woo even has gingery hair like last season’s Premier League Golden Glove winner.

However, even Spain’s stopper (who has had some troubles of his own this World Cup) would have struggled protecting South Korea’s net against Mexico. As occurred in the first game, the deadlock was broken by a penalty. Jang Hyun-soo had handled the ball in the box as he went to ground to prevent a cross from Andrés Guardado. Carlos Vela stepped up and coolly slotted the ball away to put the Mexicans ahead.

The Korean keeper then showed why his agility and shot stopping are so revered, using his athleticism to dive and claw away a Guardado effort which had been destined for the top corner. Unfortunately for him and his team mates, the Daegu man was unable to stop Javier Hernandez becoming the first Mexican to reach 50 international goals. Hyun-woo had rushed out to his feet but a slightly scuffed effort from the man nicknamed Chicharito somehow managed to squeeze its way into the net. Son Heung-min scored a wonder goal towards the end, in what was a rare moment of brilliance from an individual in the South Korea squad apart from their goalkeeper, but it turned out to be too-little-too-late.

This result meant that Hyun-woo had gone a total of 10 competitive matches for club and country without tasting victory. So, with the Taeguk Warriors facing the World Cup holders Germany, a side who needed a win to avoid becoming the first Die Mannschaft team to fail to make it out of the group stages since 1938, it was widely expected that Hyun-woo’s winless run would continue.

However, an incredible performance fully worthy of the Warrior nickname was too much for Germany, who succumbed to a 2-0 loss and crashed out of the tournament bottom of the pile.

In the last group game, when the Germans desperately needed to win with a big margin, South Korea defeated them 2-0, and Jo Hyeon-woo was one of their heroes, saving wave after wave of chances.
In the last group game, when the Germans desperately needed to win with a big margin, South Korea defeated them 2-0, and Jo Hyeon-woo was one of their heroes, saving wave after wave of chances.

The headlines were very much focused on what happened after the 90th minute. Guangzhou Evergrande centre back Kim Young-gwon stabbed the ball home in the 92nd minute to score the opener with confirmation from VAR, before Manuel Neuer’s crazy antics allowed a long ball to reach Heung-min who tapped home to secure victory in the 96th. But, what came in the time before that will have been just as satisfying for Hyun-woo and the rest of Shin Tae-yong’s side. Despite the likes of Mesut Özil creating multiple chances, Germany were never able to break the South Korean defence. The backline of Young-gwon, Lee Yong and Yun Young-sun were resolute in the way they fought against German attacks. Their goalkeeper was still tested, but he was equal to absolutely everything that was thrown at him.

Hyun-woo collected crosses that approached awkwardly and many would have left to their defenders; he also held onto a powerful header from Mario Gomez, which vitally relieved pressure when he could have tipped it over the bar to be on the safe side. The most eye-catching moment, though, came when he launched himself with his right hand outstretched to palm away Leon Goretzka’s header, which most people in the stadium expected to see flying into the net when they spotted its trajectory heading for the top corner. In short, he did absolutely everything that a defender could hope for their goalkeeper to do, leading to him being named man of the match.

This victory may not have been enough to earn South Korea progression to the next round, but it is important for the way they are  viewed in their own country. When the 2014 World Cup squad arrived back at Incheon airport, having got just one point in Brazil, they had toffees thrown at them – which is essentially a South Korean way of being told to get lost. Such a welcome would have been harsh on Jo Hyun-woo. A case can be made that he was the best goalkeeper in the group stages, even above Iran’s surprise package Alireza Beiranvand, as well as bigger names such as Fernando Muslera and Thibaut Courtois.

A good World Cup campaign on an individual level can be life changing for a player.There are so many who have moved to big leagues after impressing on the world’s biggest footballing stage. When the performances of Jo Hyun-woo are considered both domestically and at this World Cup, despite his clear affinity towards Daegu FC, where he is heading back to face FC Seoul once the K League 1 break ends, it is difficult to imagine that the keeper will be staying with the league’s bottom side for long.

As Shin Tae-yong sat in a dark room on his own, with all the blinds down and the door locked, intensely staring at a tactics board only distinguishable by the light of a small lamp, he made some changes to his side ahead of the World Cup which he felt nobody would see coming. Not all of them worked out, but his decision to entrust Jo Hyun-woo with the task of protecting the goal turned out to be the correct one. It may not have been quite enough to change the team’s fortunes, but it could be life changing for the man he selected.

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Danny Lewis

Freelance sport writer and final year Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University with a fascination for football's obscure stories.