DOHA (Reuters) - Any dreams of South Korea replicating their historic World Cup run from 20 years ago came crashing down with a last 16 humiliation at the hands of five-times champions Brazil as the Asian side's luck finally ran out in Qatar.
Korea had qualified for the knockout stages by the skin of their teeth after beating Portugal at the death, watching the end of the other group game on mobile phones with frayed nerves as they waited for Ghana to deny Uruguay a decisive goal.
Much to their relief, Uruguay were denied second place in the group as Ghana held on. The Koreans cried tears of joy when qualification was sealed, but three days later their fans would weep in despair.
Korea's reward for reaching the last 16 for the first time since 2010 was a showdown with pre-tournament favourites Brazil, who not so much waltzed into the quarter-finals but oozed class as they literally danced the samba in a 4-1 win at Stadium 974.
"I believe our participation at the World Cup has ended in a very fair manner," Korea's Portuguese coach Paulo Bento said, also confirming he was leaving his role after their exit.
The result is one the grinning Brazilians will remember for years to come and one the shattered Koreans will want to forget in a hurry as they failed to reach the heights of their 2002 predecessors who beat European giants Italy and Spain.
As co-hosts in 2002, Korea reached the semi-finals under Dutch coach Guus Hiddink to go down in football folklore as the first team from outside Europe and the Americas to reach the last four.
But a realistic Bento had tempered expectations even before the first game, not wanting to burden his side with the pressure of having to qualify for the knockouts after three group stage exits in the years that followed.
For a team that disappointingly exited the 2019 Asian Cup in the quarter-finals, Korea came into the World Cup with big question marks about their midfield and a noticeable lack of depth in the squad.
They still managed to create more opportunities in their group games than other last 16 teams such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. The one thing they lacked, however, was the finishing touch in the final third.
OVER-RELIANCE ON SON
Korea were led by Son Heung-min - a global superstar from the Premier League and the best Asian player in the world - who recovered in time from an eye socket fracture to feature in Qatar, wearing a black mask to protect his face.
But an over-reliance on the Tottenham Hotspur forward saw them draw 0-0 with a dogged Uruguay side who did well to mark him out of the game while the 30-year-old did not seem 100% in his first match after more than three weeks on the sidelines.
Against Ghana, Bento switched tactics and adopted a more direct approach as crosses into the box became the order of the day. But having out-shot their opponents, Korea lost 3-2, a result described as "totally unfair" by Bento's assistant coach.
Things only got worse when Bento was sent off to deny him a chance to stand on the touchline against his own country in their final group game against Portugal.
With just one point and their backs against the wall, Korea delivered when it mattered most as Son stepped up to pull strings and send his team through with a moment of magic while delivering the game-winning assist against Portugal.
But Son now leaves Qatar without a single goal to show for his efforts, denied the honour of scoring at three consecutive World Cups.
Only six Koreans in the squad play in top European leagues and despite their brave efforts and toil until the final whistle, it was just a matter of time before their defence was exposed and Brazil shone a harsh spotlight on the gulf in class.
Just hours after their neighbours Japan went out on penalties to Croatia, a vastly superior Brazilian team hammered the final nail in the coffin for Asian teams at the World Cup.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Doha; editing by Pritha Sarkar)