|South Korean women's national football players celebrate after defeating Spain 2-1 in 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup's preliminary group match held in Ottawa, Canada, June 18, 2015. Yonhap|
After a 14-month delay, the South Korean women's national football team will finally take a crack at making history ― sending the country to the Olympics for the first time.
South Korea and China will duel in the two-legged qualifying playoffs for the Tokyo Olympics, starting this week. The opening leg will be at Goyang Stadium in Goyang, just northwest of Seoul, at 4 p.m. Thursday. China will host the next leg at Suzhou Olympic Sports Centre in Suzhou next Tuesday ― at 4 p.m. local time and 5 p.m. in South Korea.
The aggregate score will determine who will grab the last Asian ticket to Tokyo, with the away goals rule in effect.
Women's football made its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996, and South Korea, dubbed Taeguk Ladies, have never qualified for the event.
South Korea and China were scheduled to meet in February last year, but the matches were postponed multiple times as the global coronavirus pandemic raged on. The Olympic Games themselves got pushed back by a year, and the football qualifiers were rescheduled for 2021. They were initially set for Feb. 19 and 24 but were later moved to April.
South Korea are ranked 18th in the world, three spots below China. In 37 meetings so far, South Korea have four wins, six draws and 27 losses against China. South Korea are winless in the five most recent matches against China with four losses and one draw. Their last victory against the neighbors came in August 2015.
South Korea may be in for an uphill battle again, and they will go only as far as Ji So-yun, the country's all-time leading scorer with 58 goals in 123 matches, will take them.
|South Korea's Park Hee-young (11) screams in pain after tackled by China's Yuan Fan (2) and Wang Kun, behind, during the East Asian Football Federation Women's Football Championship 2008 Final Competation in Chongqing, China, Monday, Feb. 18, 2008. AP-Yonhap|
The 30-year-old midfielder has joined the national team camp in fine form. She is in the midst of another strong season with Chelsea FC Women in England and recorded an assist in the club's 3-0 victory over VfL Wolfsbrug in the second leg of the quarterfinals at the UEFA Women's Champions League last Wednesday. The win sent Chelsea to the semifinals against Bayern Munich.
"I've played a lot of matches with my club, but I am in better form than I expected," Ji said in an interview clip released by the Korea Football Association (KFA) on Monday. "I hope to carry these positive vibes to the national team. I've come here to punch our ticket to the Olympics."
This will be Ji's first national team appearance since the third round of the Olympic qualifying tournament in February last year. She scored three goals in two matches then, both of them victories, to set up these playoff matches against China.
"It's been a long time since I got to play with the girls here, and I haven't had much time to talk to them," Ji said. "Rather than offering any advice, I'll let my action on the field do the talking."
Ji arrived in South Korea last Friday and reported to camp two days later. She and two other players coming in from England, Cho So-hyun of Tottenham Hotspur FC Women and Lee Geum-min of Brighton Hove Albion, received exemptions from the mandatory 14-day quarantine, as long as they present negative results in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
The Chinese national team will be exempt from 14-day quarantine too. It arrived Monday evening and will be put up in a Seoul hotel in a controlled setting.
The South Korean players also won't be required to quarantine when they travel to China next week. (Yonhap)