Unheralded Joo Min-Kyu's journey of perseverance to South Korea opportunity

At the age of 33, Ulsan HD striker Joo Min-Kyu is set to finally get his chance to show what he can offer South Korea -- after being called up for their upcoming back-to-back World Cup qualifiers against Thailand. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

As South Korea look to bounce back from a semifinal exit at the AFC Asian Cup back in January when they resume their qualification campaign for the 2026 FIFA World Cup over the coming week, one man looks set to finally get his long-awaited chance at international level.

Less than a month before he turns 34, Joo Min-Kyu is in line to win his first cap after being called up for the Taegeuk Warriors' upcoming back-to-back ties with Thailand in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the next World Cup.

Joo's story is one of perseverance and resilience but, even if his career has been late-blooming, it is also peculiar that it has taken this long for him to finally get his opportunity.

Having had to work his way up from the second tier of South Korean football, initially even as a reserve squad member, Joo was at one point earning a monthly wage of less than one million won (US$746) -- a far lower salary than what a fresh graduate would be paid in their first job in the country.

But through sheer hard work that is often personified by the physical approach to his game, he first showed his penchant for scoring in spells with Seoul E-Land and while performing his national service obligations with Sangju Sangmu (now Gimcheon Sangmu).

Then, it was after moving to Jeju United where he really emerged as one of the most-prolific marksmen in K League 1.

Despite playing for relatively unfancied Jeju, Joo bagged 22 goals in 2021 to become the competition's first local top scorer in five years.

He followed up with an equally-healthy haul of 17 goals the following season but was pipped to a second consecutive accolade due to Cho Gue-Sung notching the same tally from less games.

Earning a move to K League 1 giants Ulsan HD at the start of 2023, Joo would again hit the back of the net 17 times to pick up a second Golden Boot award.

With 56 goals from 107 league games to his name over the past three years, it would seem logical that the Cheongju native would have at least earned international recognition in that time -- even if it might have been understandable that there would be others ahead of him in the pecking order.

Hwang Ui-Jo has, after all, been plying his trade in Europe for several years now, while Cho always seemed a favourite of former coach Paulo Bento.

Still, Joo's opportunity never came under Bento and, even after the Portuguese was replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann, he had to continue biding his time.

Even back in December, having been omitted from Klinsmann's Asian Cup squad that boasted just two out-and-out striking options, Joo refused to throw in the towel.

"I am 33, but I still have not given up (on) my dream of playing for the national team," he said, in an interview with Korea JoongAng Daily.

Joo's chances when Klinsmann was at the helm were not helped by the fact that the German's apparent disinterest in the domestic league, which was one of the main criticisms that led to the latter's dismissal after their failure to win the Asian Cup, when they had been one of the heavy favourites.

With Hwang Sun-Hong replacing Klinsmann in a caretaker capacity until a permanent successor is found by the Korea Football Association, Joo's opportunity looks to have finally arrived.

And despite only being in the role temporarily for the moment, there should not be any doubt that Hwang -- a former South Korea international himself -- knows what he is doing especially when it comes to his attacking options, having racked up 50 goals from 103 caps to be his country's second-highest scorer only behind the legendary Cha Bum-Kun.

Joo may still have to bide his time.

Unless Hwang deviates from the system that South Korea have employed for a while now under both Bento and Klinsmann, Cho -- who has admittedly thrived since moving to Europe with Denmark's Midtjylland -- should be the first choice for the lone striker role with the dynamic and creative trio of Son Heung-Min, Lee Kang-In and Lee Jae-Sung operating in behind.

Yet, at the very least, Joo's opportunity has finally arrived.

And based on the perseverance and resilience that has epitomised the travails of his career, it seems only natural that Joo will do whatever he needs to over the coming days to soon earn his place on the international stage -- wearing the colours of his nation.