Korea Republic’s Gwak craves return to world stage
Chonburi: 182 players arrived at the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship Thailand 2019 dreaming of a place at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, but Korea Republic forward Gwak Ro-yeong has already been there and done that.
The second youngest player in the Korean squad at Uruguay 2018, Gwak was just 15 when – alongside current teammates Kim Min-ji and Kim Ye-eun - she lived the World Cup experience that awaits the top two sides in Asia.
Far from being a mere passenger on the journey, Gwak started all three matches at the Finals, but was unable to prevent Hur Jung-jae’s side from suffering a group stage elimination.
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Having tasted the pinnacle of the women’s youth game, Gwak, now 16, is eager to be a part of next year’s global Finals in India, and this time as one the team’s leaders.
“I was one of the younger players in that squad last year,” she recalled.
“it was really good experience for me to play against older international players. It’s a big asset for me to be participating in this championship as well.”
“It was a little bit of a surprise (to be selected). I was being called up now and then, but to be picked for the last squad was an honour for me.
“Before, I was a junior, but this year I am one of the seniors in the team. Playing with players my age gives me a lot of confidence, so I look forward to hopefully participating again, if possible."
Gwak’s team have significant work to do if they are to make her goal a reality, after an opening 2-0 defeat to China PR put them in danger of an early exit.
The Koreans bounced back with a 3-0 win over Vietnam on Thursday but are likely to need a victory over DPR Korea – the defending champions, who have piled on 14 goals in their first two matches – to advance to the semi-finals.
Despite the enormity of the challenge ahead, Gwak said she hoped the momentum generated against Vietnam would carry over into the clash with their neighbours on Sunday.
“We were able to show what we prepared, so it went pretty well and the whole team worked as one (against Vietnam),” she said.
“It didn’t take too long (to recover from the defeat to China PR). Our coaching staff actually had us look forward to the next game very quickly and it was a very short recovery time."
“We have two days to recover so I look forward to recovering myself in that two-day period. I look forward to getting that last three points against DPR Korea.
“It’s true that (DPR Korea) are doing very well, but if we show 100 per cent of what we have prepared, we think there is a good chance of winning for us.”
While a World Cup appearance already takes pride of place on the young forward’s résumé, just participating in the Asian Finals in Chonburi is an achievement in itself, particularly when factoring in her recent injury troubles.
Gwak walked with a notable limp following Korea Republic’s win over Vietnam – a match where she made crucial contributions to both the first and third goals – and head coach In Chang-soo believes her performances would have reached even greater heights had it not been for injury troubles.
“She recently returned from a long-term injury, but she’s been playing well,” said the Korean boss. “She said she’s back to 70 per cent but with more time she would definitely be better.
“She’s one of the top players in women’s football in Korea Republic at this age level, so we’re hoping for a greater performance from her in the future."
Gwak’s favourite player is Belgium-based winger Lee Seung-woo, the Korean’s men’s international whose own name was made partially by starring in youth World Cups, but she also takes inspiration from the achievements of Korean women players.
World Cup stars Ji So-yun (pictured above) and Cho So-hyun have enjoyed great success in the English professional game, something that Gwak hopes to replicate in the long-term future.
“Since I am also a female footballer, they are big motivators for me and I hope to one day have the chance to play at a higher level, and hopefully abroad,” she said.
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