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Pride of Asia: The Early Years

Tuesday, November 20, 2018
1956: The Korea Republic team after winning the inaugural title.

Kuala Lumpur: From the humblest beginnings, the AFC Asian Cup has grown into the greatest football show on the continent with the 17th edition, which kicks off in the United Arab Emirates in just 46 days, set to be the biggest and best ever. 

But even in its earliest days, the prestige of claiming the continental crown brought with it fame, respect and a trip to the presidential palace. retraces the AFC Asian Cup's journey through the years with the first of a four-part series.

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Looking back over more than half a century of Asian football history, the sight of Korea Republic’s name on top of the honours list for the AFC Asian Cup comes as little surprise.

In the years since the country claimed the inaugural AFC Asian Cup in Hong Kong in 1956 and followed it up with further success on home soil four years later, the Koreans have established themselves consistently as one of the leaders of the Asian game.

Ten successful qualifications for the FIFA World Cup – including nine in a row since 1986 – see them sit among the continent’s elite.


But before the first-ever AFC Asian Cup kicked off in Hong Kong more than 60 years ago, not even the Koreans themselves were confident of making any kind of impression at the first-ever continental championship.

Conceived soon after the Asian Football Confederation was created in Manila in 1954, four nations would gather in Hong Kong to fight it out for the right to call themselves the first-ever AFC Asian Cup champions.

The Koreans, having already made their debut appearance at the FIFA World Cup Finals in Switzerland in 1954, would have been among the favourites but little was certain.

Despite an initial entry list of 19 nations, just seven teams played in qualifying. Hong Kong secured their place automatically as hosts and were joined by Israel and South Vietnam with the Koreans due to play Chinese Taipei to determine the final qualifier.

A 2-1 win in Taipei after an initial 2-0 victory in Seoul secured the Koreans a 4-1 aggregate win, just a week before the Finals were due to commence.

“We didn’t expect to win the qualifier so we hadn’t bought a ticket to Hong Kong,” said Park Kyung-ho, who represented Korea Republic at the first AFC Asian Cup. “So we had to wait for a week and we only arrived on the day that the tournament started.”

By the time the Koreans touched down at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, the tournament was already underway. Hong Kong had lost the opener 3-2 to Israel, with Yehoshua Glazer scoring to give the visitors the first win of the campaign despite Au Chi Yin’s double for the hosts.

Hong Kong sought to bounce back against the Koreans, and raced into a two-goal lead thanks to efforts from Tang Yee Kit and Ko Po Keung, only for Kim Ji-sung and Choi Kwang-seok to salvage a point for their team.

From there, the Koreans went up a gear, defeating Israel 2-1 thanks to goals from Woo Sang-kwon and Sung Nak-woon before a 5-3 victory over South Vietnam in the final round of matches ensured the trophy returned to Seoul with coach Lee Yoo-hyung and his team.

Korea Republic’s AFC Asian Cup win was historic, not just for Asian football and the AFC, but for the Koreans themselves. It was the first time any team from Korea Republic had claimed an international title and the victory led to the players and coaching staff being invited to The Blue House, the president’s residence.

Four years later and on home soil, the Koreans would repeat the feat, this time with a hat-trick of wins to once again finish ahead of Israel with Chinese Taipei in third place and South Vietnam finishing fourth.

Back-to-back AFC Asian Cup wins marked a remarkable start to Korea’s involvement in the tournament. Incredibly, the country has yet to win the title since and by 1964 the balance of power within Asian football had shifted markedly from east to west.

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