“As the World Cup year starts, I can feel my heart starting to beat a bit faster.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Choe Yu-ri, a striker for Incheon Hyundai Steel and a veteran of the Korean national football team, is visibly excited as she sits down for an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo at Incheon Hyundai Steel Stadium on Jan. 3.
The excitement is understandable. For Choe and the rest of the Korean national squad, this is a huge year — the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in July and Korea, ranked at No. 15 in the world, has high aspirations for the global tournament.
Korea was drawn in Group H at the World Cup alongside world No. 2 Germany, no. 27 Colombia and No. 76 Morocco. In typical World Cup style, the Taeguk Ladies will end up playing Germany last on Aug. 3 after facing Colombia on July 25 and Morocco on July 30.
“We will play Germany in Game 3. They’re physically dominating players and an exceptionally good team,” Choe said. “Before we meet Germany, we have to win the first two games.”
The top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout stage at the World Cup. To be comfortably in with a shot, Korea need to beat both Colombia and Morocco. The African side look like the easier target, but Choe thinks it’s foolish to underestimate them.
“Just like the Moroccan men’s team, who advanced to the semifinals at the Qatar World Cup, the women’s team is also likely to show exceptional teamwork. I don’t think there’s any team that is going to be easy for us to beat.”
Watching the Taeguk Warriors in Qatar provided some inspiration for the women’s squad, although like their male counterparts, who made it out of the group stage only to immediately come up against Brazil, the women’s team also face a difficult path.
“I watched the third Qatar World Cup group stage match against Portugal with [former men’s national team winger] Yeom Ki-Hun and fans of the Suwon Samsung Bluewings at a sponsor event,” Choe said. “Seeing Korea dramatically advance to the round of 16 made me hungry to play at the World Cup as soon as possible.
“The men’s team met Brazil in the round of 16 at the Qatar World Cup. If we make it out of the group stage in Australia, we’re also likely to meet Brazil or France, who are the obvious favorites to take first and second place in Group F.”
Choe is a Korean national team veteran and a core player in head coach Colin Bell’s attacking formation. In fact, one of the very first things Bell did when he took over the team in 2019 was head to Incheon to see Choe in action.
At the club level Choe is a prolific goal scorer, scoring 10 goals in the 2022 WK League season to lead Incheon to its 10th-straight WK League title.
That skill is also clearly on display with the national team — Choe scored four goals last year, all within a six-match period starting with the final of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup on Feb. 6 and ending with a friendly against Jamaica in early September.
Bell, who had dedicated himself to learning Korean over the last few years, has long emphasized the need for the Korean squad to improve their strength and physical ability to play the full 90 minutes without tiring. Choe’s speed and stamina her mean she is one of the players that is better able to maintain her performance her across the entire game. 안전놀이터
“I guess I’m good at running and sprinting a lot,” Choe said. “Bell often shouts my name, which is easy to yell across the field, especially when I’m not concentrating well. Then he laughs and shouts, ‘Yuri, focus!’”
With Choe’s relentless energy it should come as little surprise that she’s a coffee addict, and she not only runs an Instagram full of cafe photos but also has her own barista license. On the pitch, that energy often sees her compared to Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Hwang Hee-chan, known in Korea as “The Bull” for his relentless and often aggressive energy moving up the pitch.
“I’ve been told I’m like the female Hwang Hee-chan,” Choe said, “but I need to work a lot harder if I want to compete with his skill. Although like Hwang, I’ve heard from opposing players that the sound of my footsteps running toward them is scary like a charging bull.
“Hwang scored the winning goal against Portugal, and that’s a legacy I definitely want to live up to. Coach Bell said our goal is the final and that’s the only thing we should focus on.”
Despite her age, this will be Choe’s first appearance at a World Cup. She missed out on both the 2015 World Cup, where Korea reached the round of 16, and the 2019 tournament, where Korea crashed out with three losses in the group stage.
Choe missed out on the 2015 World Cup after rejecting her draft pick at the 2014 rookie draft. Choe was drafted in 2014 by Busan Sangmu WFC, now Boeun Sangmu, a military football club.
In order to play for Sangmu, Choe was required to enter the military as a non-commissioned officer and undergo basic training. She refused, considering it an infringement of her freedom to choose her own career path, choosing instead to sit out of the professional.
She joined Sejong Sportstoto as a special draftee a year later, and moved to Incheon in 2021.
That decision likely saw her out of the World Cup squad but helped changed things for the better for future players. Following the protest, the rule requiring enlistment was eventually scrapped.
“I don’t regret my choice at the time,” Choe said. “I’m glad that younger players are free to make their own choice.”