EFESeoul

South Korea’s under-20 male soccer team on Monday was met with a huge hero's welcome home from Poland where it finished runner-up in the World Cup, the country's best ever result in the men's section in any category.

Hundreds of thousands of fans received the players at Incheon International Airport in western Seoul, despite a 3-1 defeat to Ukraine in the finals in Lodz on Saturday.

The Reds, nickname of the South Korean team owing to their red jerseys, were then welcomed in a ceremony attended by large sections of the public and the media.

The spotlight was on midfielder Lee Kang-in, who plays for Valencia FC in Spain's La Liga, and who was awarded the Golden Ball on being judged the best player of the tournament.

Lee, 18, played a pivotal role in his team's campaign, scoring two goals — including one in the final — and providing four assists.

The team's coach, Chung Jung-yong, told reporters Monday that he had asked Lee to try and win the next Under-20 World Cup in 2021, which he would still be eligible to play.

The South Korean team was the revelation of the tournament, emerging from a group stage where it was lumped with favorites such as Portugal and Argentina, and defeating Japan, Senegal and Ecuador en route to the final.

Against Ukraine, the South Koreans took the lead in the fifth minute, thanks to a penalty scored by Lee, but were outfought by the Ukrainians as Vladyslav Supriaha scored two and Heorhii Tsitaishvili added a third to take home the winners’ trophy.

The best results by the men's team at a World Cup until now had been a fourth-place finish in 2002, and in the under-20 category in 1983 in Mexico.

Only the women's team has achieved World Cup glory, winning the under-17 category in 2010.

The frenzy surrounding the team's performance in Poland has led some to send online petitions to the South Korean government to exempt the current under-20 players from conscription or compulsory military service in the country.

asb/sc/tw