- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - When South Korea returned home after collecting just one point at last year’s World Cup, fans in Seoul heckled the players and offered the local insult of pelting them with candy.

On Sunday evening, just 24 hours after losing a thrilling Asian Cup final 2-1 to Australia in Sydney, South Korea’s players arrived back at the same Incheon International Airport to be greeted in a much friendlier fashion after local media called for flowers and not candy - two words that rhyme in Korean - to be thrown.

“It has been tough for the players since the World Cup so this was necessary,” coach Uli Stielike said. “The most important point about this tournament is that it has restored Korea’s standing in Asia and recovered the Korean spirit … through this tournament, we can have a new start. We didn’t win but we tried our best.”

After reaching the final without conceding a goal, South Korea could have taken the trophy back to Seoul for the first time since 1960. For periods in the final in Sydney, the Taeguk Warriors were on top.

After falling behind to a Massimo Luonga goal after 44 minutes, Son Heung-min equalized in the 91st. With a penalty shootout looming, James Troisi scored the winning goal for Australia in extra time.

Few in Seoul would have imagined that the team could have recovered its position in the nation’s affections quite so quickly, but South Korea won plenty of friends at home and elsewhere in Asia.

Former West Germany international Stielike has delivered since being appointed in September to a generally underwhelming response, although at least expectations were low after the poor showing at the World Cup.

In Brazil, the performances were worse than the results suggested. Coach Hong Myung-bo resigned and was replaced by Stielike, who, as well as introducing defensive discipline, has given his star players a foundation to shine.

The 22-yrear-old forward Son Heung-min confirmed his place as one of the biggest names in Asian soccer, scoring three goals at the Asian Cup.

“It’s frustrating to miss the chance to win in our first final for 28 years,” Son said. “It was good to score goals in the tournament but the most important thing was winning the title.”

The Bayer Leverkusen star, recently linked with big money moves to English Premier League giants Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, admitted that South Korea was not at their best early in the tournament.

“We started slowly in the first couple of games,” Son said. “We were nervous and playing with the burden of pressure, but as our condition started to improve, we started to play better football too.”

Son was one of four South Koreans, along with midfielder Ki Sung-yeung and defenders Kwak Tae-hwi and Cha Du-ri, to be named in the official tournament “Dream Team” by the Asian Football Confederation.

There were no Japanese stars in the XI. The Samurai Blue strolled through a comfortable group, but was eliminated by the United Arab Emirates in the quarterfinals after a penalty shootout followed a 1-1 deadlock from the previous two hours. It was a disappointing exit for the defending champion hunting for a fifth title in seven tournaments.

There was some criticism of Japan’s Mexican-born coach Javier Aguirre for sticking with the same starting lineup in all four games in Australia. Aguirre’s position was already under a cloud as he is being investigated by Spanish authorities for alleged involvement in match-fixing during his time coaching Spanish club Real Zaragoza in 2011. The coach strongly denies any wrongdoing.

For the moment, Japan Football Association chief Kuniya Daini has told Aguirre that his job his safe although the organization will have to wait and see what happens with the investigation.

For Japan and Korea, Asia’s two most successful soccer nations, the tournament showed that life in the continent is getting harder.

“I think the players have got first-hand understanding of how tough the competition is in Asia,” Daini was quoted as saying by Japanese media.

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