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July 24, 2017

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S. Korean fans disappointed at exit

South Korean soccer fans didn't hurl blame at the country's players early Saturday despite their 2-0 loss to Switzerland that sent them home from the World Cup without advancing beyond the first round.

Instead, they praised the team for showing unrelenting spirit to the last minute.

"I think our players showed such sportsmanship," said Kim Jong-ho, 45, decked out in the team's signature red color and riding a motorcycle around Seoul to avoid traffic snarls caused by crowds. "The fact that our team made it this far is something remarkable, given that this is the top-notch international championship."

He was among nearly 1.7 million fans gathered outdoors across the country for the match, including 660,000 fans in Seoul alone, police said. The kickoff was at 4 a.m. local time (1900 GMT).

One of the fans died of a suspected heart attack while watching the game on large outdoor screens in central Seoul. Police said the 25-year-old college student, identified only as Kim, had suffered from high blood pressure and there was no sign of violence at the scene.

South Korea had been out to prove that its 2002 performance, making it to the semifinals, wasn't just a fluke because it had home-field advantage as co-hosts of the tournament. The team's fortunes have become a national obsession since then and rallying cry for the country, with soccer rising to unprecedented prominence here.

The team notched its first World Cup win outside Asia with a 2-1 win over Togo, and held France to a 1 1 tie that many here treated as a win, given the strong French side.

Many exhausted fans, after staying up all night to cheer on the team, lavished supportive messages on the players.

"Soccer has its value as a sport. There is nothing to be bitter about," said Kim Jong-ho.

"The players fought well," said Shin Yun-soon, 63, a grandmother who lined up for almost three hours to get in to Jamsil Olympics Stadium in Seoul, where fans gathered to watch the match.

She was carrying her 6-year-old granddaughter on her back so she wouldn't be trampled by the crowd.

"But it would have been greater if our team had beat the Swiss team," she added.

For many patriotic South Korean fans, however, the loss was too grave to get over so quickly.

One point of bitterness was the second Swiss goal in the 71st minute, which sparked angry protests by the Korean side of an allegedly missed offsides call.

"The moment the referee acknowledged it as a goal, I cried utterly because it was too unfair. He just turned a deaf ear to our claim," said Kim So-yun, 17, still on the verge of tears.

Draped in the South Korean flag to fend off an early morning chill, the high school student turned her hopes to future championships.

"I will go to the 2010 World Cup in person to cheer on our team," she said.

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