NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Sweden won an opening World Cup game for the first time since 1958 with a narrow 1-0 victory over South Korea, but they will need to find their shooting boots if they are to match their two other, trickier opponents in Group F.
After dominating the game but missing a string of chances, the Swedes won a 65th-minute penalty when Kim Min-woo brought down Viktor Claesson in the box. Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar initially waved the Swedes away, before being called to consult the Video Assistant Referee system.
In the second VAR-awarded penalty of the World Cup, Sweden’s 33-year-old captain Andreas Granqvist swept the ball low and left of impressive goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo.
“The VAR took a while but we are very pleased they had it ... I was pretty sure,” Granqvist said of the wait.
The result brought wild celebrations from hordes of yellow-clad Swedish fans, fearful their team would draw another blank after failing to score in their last three games.
Sweden had not won an opening World Cup game since 1958, when they were the hosts and eventual runners-up.
The Asians began the game brighter, harrying for the first 15 minutes against an initially sluggish-looking Sweden.
But the Scandinavians quickly found their poise, coping comfortably with Korea’s attacks despite the absence of defender Victor Lindelof through illness.
Swedish coach Janne Andersson said the penalty was “crystal-clear”, adding: “I felt the wait for VAR was unnecessary.”
In a game short on finesse, several of Sweden’s best chances fell to Marcus Berg, who had one close-range side-foot shot spectacularly saved by Cho off his knee in the 21st minute.
“We played the match the way we intended, but I’m a little unhappy with the chances we didn’t put away,” added Andersson.
Both teams’ star players provided their creative drive, Son Heung-min trying to drive Korea forward from the left flank but again failing to have the same impact on the international stage as he does in the Premier League.
For Sweden, the pacy Emil Forsberg constantly fed the frontmen, and also curled a shot over from outside the box.
Korea’s best chances fell to Koo Ja-cheol, who headed just wide in the second half and Hwang Hee-chan who saw his stoppage-time header also just miss during a late, desperate siege.
The Asians’ coach Shin Tae-yong had no complaints about the penalty, and praised his team’s battle with Sweden for aerial superiority. “It was unfortunate we lost,” he lamented, saying he was now focussed on the next game against “formidable” Mexico, who stunned world champions Germany 1-0 in the other Group F opener.
Though not the most attractive of games, there was a terrific atmosphere in the 42,300-strong crowd at the blue-and-white Nizhny Novgorod stadium next to a cathedral at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers.
The Swedes, many in de rigueur Viking helmets, easily outnumbered and out-sang their red-clad rivals in the avant-garde, sun-kissed dome built to evoke wind and water.
Sweden go into their game against Germany with confidence. “If we win against Germany, we are through. The pressure is on them,” said the ebullient Granqvist.
Few will be giving a chance of progressing to Korea, who have now only won one of their last 10 World Cup games.
Additional reporting by Mark Gleeson in Nizhny Novgorod, Philip O'Connor in Sochi, Alexandra Ulmer in Volgograd; Editing by Hugh Lawson