Son Heung-min, rising stars to represent S. Korea at World Cup qualifiers

SEOUL-- Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min and a group of youngsters will look to take South Korea to the next phase in the ongoing qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Son was one of 28 players named to the South Korean men's national team Monday by head coach Paulo Bento, ahead of three World Cup qualifying matches scheduled for June.

South Korea will serve as the centralized venue for all remaining Group H matches in the second round qualifying action for Asian countries. Teams last played in November 2019, and all matches set for 2020 got wiped out by the global coronavirus pandemic.

To ensure safe proceedings and minimize traveling, FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) settled on South Korea as the sole host, and Goyang Stadium in Goyang, just northwest of Seoul, will be the lone venue.

South Korea will play Turkmenistan at 8 p.m. on June 5, followed by Sri Lanka at 8 p.m. on June 9. Then the final match will be against Lebanon at 3 p.m. on June 13.

North Korea had also been in Group H, but they recently withdrew from the competition.

Son should once again wear the captain's armband as he tries to lead South Korea past three decisive underdogs. He enjoyed a fine campaign with the Spurs, having established new career highs with 17 goals in the Premier League and 22 goals in all competitions this season.

Though Son hasn't been nearly as dynamic in international play -- he has three goals in his past 19 matches wearing the national flag -- taking on overmatched defenses will likely be antidote for the gifted attacker.

Bento's squad includes a few new faces who have been turning heads in the K League this year, including Suwon Samsung Bluewings' 19-year-old forward Jung Sang-bin and Pohang Steelers midfielder Song Min-kyu, the 2020 K League Young Player of the Year.

Joining Son from Europe are some usual suspects such as Bordeaux forward Hwang Ui-jo, RB Leipzig midfielder Hwang Hee-chan and Holstein Kiel midfielder Lee Jae-sung.

Bento selected four goalkeepers, with Ulsan Hyundai FC's Jo Hyeon-woo likely having the inside track for the top job.

On defense, three Ulsan players, Won Du-jae, Hong Chul and Kim Tae-hwan, have been named, alongside Kim Min-jae of Beijing Guoan, Kim Young-gwon of Gamba Osaka, and Kim Moon-hwan of Los Angeles FC.

The South Korean men's Olympic team will also play a pair of tuneup matches for the Tokyo Games next month, hosting Ghana on June 12 and 15 on Jeju Island.

With their training camps overlapping, Bento and Olympic team head coach Kim Hak-bum went over their roster selection prior to Monday's announcement.

The Olympic men's football tournament is typically open to players 23 or younger, though the age limit for Tokyo has been raised to 24 because the competition was pushed back by one year due to COVID-19.

Valencia CF Lee Kang-in, who, at 20, has already played six matches for the senior team, was left off Bento's squad this time, so Kim could put him on his side. Ditto for Lee Seung-woo of Portimonense, who has 11 caps for the senior side but is still eligible for the Olympics at 23.

In a tradeoff, Bento selected Olympic-eligible talents in Song, Won and Lee Dong-gyeong of Ulsan Hyundai FC.

At a press conference unveiling his roster, Bento said the selection process following his talks with Kim "went extremely naturally and organically."

"We evaluated the players we wanted and picked them accordingly. We took all the necessary steps to report our selections to the Korea Football Association," Bento said.

He added that he understood the importance of earning military exemptions at Olympic Games. While able-bodied young South Korean men must serve in the armed forces, athletes who win an Olympic medal or any color are exempt.

"We took that into consideration when building our roster," Bento said. "We did the same thing when South Korea played at the Olympic qualifying tournament."

From the second round, the eight group winners and the four-best runners-up will advance to the next round.

After four matches, South Korea are in second place with eight points. Turkmenistan are leading the way with nine points, but they have played five matches.

South Korea have played in each of the past nine World Cups.

The AFC hasn't decided how to work around North Korea's absence in the remaining matches. North Korea had been scheduled to play Sri Lanka, South Korea and Turkmenistan.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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