Tashkent: “We are so happy” was the reaction of Korea Republic’s Lee Dong-gook after a 0-0 draw with Uzbekistan on Tuesday proved enough for the Taeguk Warriors to advance to a ninth successive FIFA World Cup as Group A runners-up.
After a three-year absence from the national team, veteran striker Lee was recalled for the final two qualifying games against group winners Islamic Republic of Iran, which ended scoreless on Thursday, and Uzbekistan.
Needing a win in Tashkent to guarantee progression to a 10th FIFA World Cup, the East Asians struck the woodwork three times, with substitute Lee heading against the crossbar late on.
But Syria’s failure to beat Iran after a 2-2 draw meant the point saw the South Koreans claim the second automatic qualifying spot.
“We are so happy now, although there is a bit of regret that we could not score, especially as I wasted a good chance,” said Lee.
“But I did help create opportunities for the team and I am pleased to be part of this side.”
Lee, who first represented his country in 1998 and has gone on to make more than 100 appearances, was given a surprise recall to the national team after coach Shin Tae-yong took over the reins from the departed Uli Stielike back in June.
The striker was brought on to a standing ovation in the dying minutes against Iran in Seoul on Thursday, but the 0-0 draw meant Group A went down to the wire.
“I told [the coach] that I’m old compared to the other people in the squad so if he just wanted me there to give advice to the young players, I didn’t want to join up,” Lee told the-AFC.com prior to the game with Iran.
“But he assured me that he needed me as a striker for the last two matches and that he wanted me to show my ability on the pitch.”
Again starting from the bench at Bunyodkor Stadium, the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors frontman was brought on with 12 minutes remaining and almost ensured a fairytale comeback but his late header bounced off the crossbar.
Korea Republic’s attention will now turn towards next summer’s World Cup, by which time Lee will be 39 and perhaps still be aiming for a swansong on the global stage.
“I haven’t thought about the World Cup yet because the only thing on my mind was thinking about how we could qualify,” admitted Lee.
“We now have time to look ahead to the World Cup and we should prepare as well as we can to ensure we’re ready for it.”