CAPE TOWN: South Korea reinforced its reputation as a credible football force with battling qualities at the World Cup, but Park Ji-Sung admits their defence let them down having conceded eight goals.
They came into the tournament among an elite group of just six nations to have qualified for seven World Cups in a row, along with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain.
But unlike the rest, before South Africa they could only boast of one win on foreign soil - a 2-1 victory over Togo in 2006.
They added to that here with an opening 2-0 victory over Greece which set them on their way, before crashing 4-1 to Argentina and then drawing 2-2 with Nigeria which ensured an appearance in the last 16 for only the second time.
But squandered chances saw them lose 2-1 to Uruguay on Saturday to draw a curtain on the hopes of millions of die-hard Korean fans who braved miserable weather to watch each game on giant screens across the country.
The Yonhap news agency said 920,000 people took to the streets of Seoul and other major cities nationwide to catch the Uruguay showdown, only to see their dreams shattered by an 80th minute goal from Luis Suarez.
Despite failing in their mission to match their 2002 exploits and make the semi-finals, coach Huh Jung-Moo had nothing but praise for his players.
"My players did their best. We have the capability, but we have seen here that we have areas to improve on," he said.
"It would have been a lot better if we had played with a bit more confidence, but I feel hopeful for the future of South Korean football. The players are improving, our game is getting better."
Huh`s own future is undecided, but he said that whatever happened he expects Korea to learn from the experience.
"Whatever I end up doing I really hope South Korea will continue to be on the world stage and I want to contribute in any way I can."
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez was also impressed by what he saw of the Asian giants.
"This match confirms how balanced football has become around the world, you can see how Korea have grown - they made us fight hard for our victory," he said.
"Korea may have lost but they are leaving this World Cup with heads held high."
South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak added to the compliments after watching the game on television ahead of a meeting with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Toronto, Yonhap said.
"Although they were defeated, they fought well," Lee was quoted as saying by his spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye.
"I send a message of encouragement to our spirited players who did their best to the end."
Despite the pats on the back, the South Korean players were gutted, with defender Cha Du-Ri bursting into tears at the final whistle.
"I cried wondering if I would be able to return to such a large event," the 30-year-old said. "I believe we can produce much better results four years from now, but I think this match could be the last for me."
Their inspirational captain Park Ji-Sung, playing in his third World Cup, said lessons had been learned, none more so than the importance of having a rock solid back line.
"There can only be regrets from a lost match. We could have won the game and the players also showed such potential," he told reporters, adding that he now realised how "important defence is in becoming a strong team".
"It`s regrettable that the defensive line has little experience playing overseas," the Manchester United lynchpin said.
Japan are now Asia`s only team left in contention after North Korea and Australia were also eliminated. They face Paraguay in Pretoria on Tuesday.
BDST: 1621hrs, June 27, 2010