Women’s football veteran looking to keep battling on heels of subpar tournaments

With an early exit at both the FIFA Women's World Cup and at the Asian Games over a couple of months this year, things aren't looking so rosy for South Korea heading into the Olympic qualifiers this month.

But instead of wallowing in self-pity, veteran defender Kim Hye-ri said Monday she wants to lead her teammates to where they have never been before: an Olympic tournament.

Women's football made its Olympic debut in 1996 and South Korea have never qualified for the quadrennial event. Their next chance will begin later this month in the second round of the Asian qualifiers, with China, North Korea and Thailand as South Korea's Group B foes.

Kim Hye-ri, a defender on the South Korean women's national football team, speaks to reporters before a training session at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 16, 2023, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Kim Hye-ri, a defender on the South Korean women's national football team, speaks to reporters before a training session at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 16, 2023, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Three group winners and the best runner-up team will move on to the third round, and two winners from that stage will punch their tickets to Paris for the Olympics.

"I'd love to compete at an Olympic Games before I retire," Kim said before a training session at the National Football Center in Paju, northwest of Seoul. "I've been at three World Cups and four Asian Games. But no South Korean has played at the Olympics, and I'd love to play there with this group before I call it quits."

Kim's latest World Cup and Asian Games experiences were something she'd rather forget. South Korea managed one draw and two losses to miss the knockouts at the World Cup in Australia in early August. They then lost to North Korea 4-1 in the quarterfinals of the Asian Games in China at the end of September, despite hopes for a medal.

Kim, 33, is part of an aging core that has been doing the heavy lifting for the women's team here for a decade. She knows her and her teammates' clock is ticking, and said giving up on the battle now would send the wrong message to the younger generation.

"We feel the weight of responsibility as the veteran group," Kim said. "It may be a time of crisis for women's football in Korea, but we have to keep on fighting with confidence. If we fold under pressure, then younger players won't learn anything from us. At times like this, we have to show more perseverance and keep pushing. We'll worry about results later."

Kim Hye-ri (R), a defender on the South Korean women's national football team, takes part in a training session at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 16, 2023. (Yonhap)

Kim Hye-ri (R), a defender on the South Korean women's national football team, takes part in a training session at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 16, 2023. (Yonhap)

North Korea have long had South Korea's number, losing just once in 20 meetings. The quarterfinals loss at the Asian Games was a controversial one, with South Korea head coach Colin Bell blasting referee Pansa Chaisanit for poor officiating, but Kim said she didn't want to make any more excuses.

"We were disappointed with some of the calls but officiating is part of the game," Kim said. "If we'd played better, then officiating wouldn't have been as much of an issue. We have to play better and make sure we beat them this time."

Kim said South Korea "wasted too much energy" chasing the ball after losing possession too easily against North Korea.

"We have to hold on to the ball and finish our chances," Kim added. "As a defender, my primary goal is to keep North Korea scoreless. We also understand what kind of mentality we have to have against them, and I think we're going to be ready this time."

Kim Hye-ri, a defender on the South Korean women's national football team, speaks to reporters before a training session at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 16, 2023, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Kim Hye-ri, a defender on the South Korean women's national football team, speaks to reporters before a training session at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 16, 2023, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Bell, who marked his fourth anniversary as South Korea's bench boss, has been under heat since the World Cup. Some of the criticism stems from Bell's constant complaints about the system of women's football in the country and his deflection of blame away from himself and toward others, such as referees and at times his own players.

Kim insisted the players still have complete faith in their coach.

"We don't really pay attention to outside noise," Kim said. "I know people may criticize him. Internally, though, we have a really strong relationship with him. He never lets criticism bother him. He always treats us with the same respect."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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