SUZHOU, China: China’s women sealed a last-ditch spot at the Tokyo Olympics football on Tuesday by squeezing past South Korea 4-3 on aggregate, a thrilling conclusion to a qualifying campaign dogged by coronavirus delays.
Former Paris Saint-Germain forward Wang Shuang scored the winner in extra time in front of 13,000 jubilant fans in Suzhou, after South Korea recovered from a 2-1 first-leg home deficit.
Wuhan native Wang lashed the ball into the bottom corner from just outside the box in the first period of extra time to torpedo South Korea’s hopes of playing at the Olympics for the first time.
Players from both teams collapsed at the end, in what was the final chapter in a long qualifying campaign for the Asian rivals.
This decider — one of two remaining berths for this summer’s delayed Tokyo Games — was scheduled for March last year but was postponed three times because of the coronavirus.
China’s coach Jia Xiuquan said afterwards that he was struggling to express himself because the emotion was still raw.
“The key word should be ‘not easy’ — it was not easy because of the delay to this match,” he said.
“But during the past year we worked hard and we deserve this result. It is everyone’s hope that we can keep growing and have success, and win the Olympics.
“With our team spirit, everything is possible.”
The coronavirus hung heavily over the tie. The Suzhou stadium announcer told the crowd to keep their masks on and social distance, while medical staff in full protective bodysuits watched from the sidelines.
China bussed fans in for the game and, decked out in red and with matching face masks, they booed the announcement of the South Korean national anthem.
South Korea, who have never reached the Olympics since women’s football was introduced in 1996, were a threat every time they attacked and silenced the home supporters when Kang Chae-rim scored on the half hour.
That made it 2-2 on aggregate but South Korea needed to score again and they did so on the stroke of half-time thanks to an own goal.
China, 15th in the FIFA rankings to South Korea’s 18th, had barely threatened but substitute Yang Man popped up to level the tie 3-3, setting the stage for Wang’s late heroics.
It was a fairytale end to China’s tortuous Olympic journey.
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