AL RAYYAN, Qatar >> South Korea’s players formed a circle in the center of the field and trained their eyes on several cell phones showing a nearby match that would decide their future at the World Cup.
The South Koreans had just about done their job, beating Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal teammates 2-1 on a stoppage-time goal.
Now came an agonizing wait. To advance to the round of 16, they just needed Uruguay to not score a goal against Ghana in the other group match that still had at least six minutes to play.
Thousands of red-and-white-clad South Korea fans had whipped out their phones, too. Some prayed. Others were crying, just like captain Son Heung-min in the players’ huddle.
They could soon really party.
South Korea advanced on the tiebreaker of goals scored, pushing Uruguay into third place today in one of the wildest finishes to a group in the tournament’s 92-year history.
“It really feels like a miracle,” South Korea striker Cho Gue-sung said.
South Korea and Uruguay finished with four points and both had a goal difference of zero, but the Asian team scored four goals compared to Uruguay’s two.
“We never gave up,” Son said through tears. “Our players were trying to run an extra step more, sacrificing themselves, and that allowed us to achieve a good result.”
When the Uruguay-Ghana game finished 2-0 and South Korea was sure of its second-place finish, the players on the field erupted in joy, hugging each other and squirting water in the air.
Then they got in a line and sprinted toward their fans behind one of the goals at Education City Stadium before performing a dive in front of them.
South Korea was tied at 1-1 and heading out of the tournament when a Portugal corner got cleared and Son led a length-of-the-field breakaway in the first minute of added time. He got crowded out by Portugal’s retreating defenders but had the presence of mind to slip a pass through an opponent’s legs and into the path of Hwang Hee-chan, who placed a low finish past goalkeeper Diogo Costa.
Hwang, who came on as a substitute for his first match at this year’s World Cup, removed his jersey and flexed his muscles. Some of his teammates fell to the ground. But there were still five minutes more of stoppage time to play.
When the final whistle blew, Son — who was sobbing with joy — and other teammates dropped dramatically to the turf, banging their fists. South Korea coach Paulo Bento, who is Portuguese, waited patiently in the tunnel while the Uruguay-Ghana match played to a finish. He couldn’t be with his players because he was serving a suspension for a red card in South Korea’s last game.
Hwang didn’t play in South Korea’s first two games because of a left hamstring injury but entered as a 66th-minute substitute against Portugal. He said the coaching staff told him: “You’re going to create something.”
Portugal had already advanced after two games and won the group, assuring Ronaldo of at least one more match in Qatar as he seeks his first World Cup title in likely his final attempt.
Ricardo Horta, starting up front alongside Ronaldo, had given Portugal the lead in the fifth minute when he converted a first-time shot off a cross from right back Diogo Dalot.
South Korea equalized with a helping hand from Ronaldo after an outswinging corner struck his back as he turned away from the ball. Kim Young-gwon swept the loose ball into the net in the 27th minute to start a comeback that had the most dramatic of endings.
“What we achieved here is special,” Son said, “and I am so proud of our players.
“Making the last 16 was our goal. We did our best every game, but you just can’t predict what happens in football.”
South Korea’s players are getting used to providing late drama. Four of the team’s last seven goals at the World Cup have been scored in the 90th minute or later.
Ronaldo started for the third straight group game but was substituted after an ineffective 65 minutes. If he starts as expected in the last 16, he’ll have played four games in 13 days at the World Cup — having only been used for Manchester United before the tournament.
South Korea has advanced from the group stage for the third time. The team reached the semifinals on home soil in 2002 and lost in the last 16 in 2010.