Six years on from his World Cup heroics, Jo Hyeon-Woo emerges as South Korea's saviour once more

Jo Hyeon-woo emerged as South Korea's hero on Tuesday as he made two brilliant saves in the penalty shootout to seal a last-16 victory over Saudi Arabia at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. MB Media/Getty Images

When Jo Hyeon-Woo emerged as a surprise first-choice goalkeeper for South Korea back at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, few outside of the country would have been familiar with him.

He would go on to make a name for himself with some fine displays -- culminating in a heroic match-winning showing against then-champions Germany -- and it looked like it would only lead to bigger and better things.

Fast forward to January 2024, the reality has not quite panned out that way.

But on Tuesday, even if he no longer has enough time or opportunity left in his career to achieve all that was expected of him back then, Jo gave a reminder that he can still be a saviour on the big stage.

After South Korea had somehow notched an equaliser in the 99th minute to force a 1-1 draw in their AFC Asian Cup round of 16 tie with fellow heavyweights Saudi Arabia, the game was to be eventually decided by the dreaded penalties after neither team was able to find a winner in 30 minutes of extra-time.

It was there where -- while South Korea's four spot-kick takers all deserve credit for keeping their cool -- it would be Jo who stood out the biggest, quite literally, as he produced two fine saves to deny Sami Al-Najei and Abdulrahman Ghareeb and complete a quite incredible escape for his side.

Even before the shootout, Jo had already come good once when -- having been a virtual bystander in the latter stages of the contest with South Korea on the front foot -- he showed that his concentration levels had not wavered as he produced a fine save to thwart Abdullah Radif right at the end of extra-time, after his teammates had left him moderately exposed on a counterattack.

It was a display that would not come as a surprise to anyone that had witnessed his monumental efforts against Germany on that sunny day in Kazan back on June 27, 2018, as the South Koreans pulled off a remarkable 2-0 win that eliminated the defending World Cup champions in a result of seismic proportions.

On that day, Jo made one world-class save after another to leave the Germans bewildered before South Korea would score twice in injury-time to claim a historic triumph -- yet he had not even been expected to feature ahead of the World Cup.

Kim Seung-Gyu had largely been the first choice all throughout the Asian qualifiers and even Kim Jin-Hyeon was far more experienced, with both playing abroad in Japan's J1 League.

On the other hand, Jo had just six caps to his name prior to the tournament and was playing for a Daegu outfit that admittedly have punched above their weight in recent years but were still not one of the traditional domestic powerhouses such as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors or Ulsan Hyundai.

Back in the days when a tournament squads were restricted to 23 players, Jo's number at the World Cup literally made him the final man in the team -- even if such digits in the modern game hold lesser significance.

With a stroke of genius, then-South Korea coach Shin Tae-Yong promoted Jo to the starting XI and, after his fine displays, there was plenty of speculation that a move to Europe would follow given the exposure that came with performing at the World Cup.

Sometimes, things just do not work out as planned.

Jo never made it to Europe. He hasn't even left South Korea.

He did move to Ulsan (now known as Ulsan HD) at the start of 2020 and, while he featured plenty in the league, the team's triumph in the AFC Champions League -- Asia's premier club competition -- at the end of that season would involve Jo watching on from the bench as Jo Su-Huk was mainly preferred in continental competition all the way to the final.

Jo Hyeon-woo's career has not exactly been unsuccessful. He does have an ACL winner's medal from that season to go with two K League titles, as well as a staggering seven consecutive appearances in the domestic competition's Best XI.

Nonetheless, just like back in 2018, he was not supposed to South Korea's first choice in goal -- and this time, he really wasn't.

After Kim Seung-Gyu started the opening 3-1 win over Bahrain, a horrific anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered just days later in training -- ahead of their second game against Jordan -- ruled him out for the rest of the tournament and threw Jo Hyeon-Woo back in to the fray.

Almost six years ago, he did not disappoint even if his heroics were ultimately in vain as other results meant South Korea were also eliminated from the group stage of the World Cup in spite of that outstanding win over Germany.

On Tuesday, they would prove anything but as Jo Hyeon-Woo -- back in the big time -- would produce feats everyone already knew he was capable of to complete South Korea's stunning comeback against Saudi Arabia, and keep alive their hopes of a first Asian Cup since 1960.