By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, July 28 (Yonhap) -- Alex Wilkinson wasn't really expected to play for his native Australia at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil last month. Yet once he got the call, as injuries kept Rhys Williams and Curtis Good off the Socceroos' team, Wilkinson made the most of his opportunity.
Wilkinson, who plays professionally for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the South Korean K League Classic, even made a highlight reel play that turned him into an instant social media sensation. Although Australia took a quick exit out of Brazil, losing all three Group B matches to the Netherlands, Chile and Spain, Wilkinson said his first World Cup was still a "wonderful experience," something that he hopes will help his South Korean club win the league title.
"It was fantastic, something I will never forget," Wilkinson said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency after participating in the K League Classic All-Star Game last Friday in Seoul. Wilkinson, in his third season with Jeonbuk, was the only foreign player to be voted in by fans as a starter in the annual festivities.
"To play at a World Cup was something I'd never thought I'd get to do," Wilkinson added. "The results weren't the best. We played against some very good teams. But the more experience you can get playing against good opposition and playing with your national team at a high level, the better player you become. Hopefully, I can help Jeonbuk become the league champion."
Wilkinson, 29, played every minute of Australia's three group matches as a center back. With Australia trailing Chile 2-1 in the second half of their first group match, Wilkinson made a spectacular defensive play, clearing a strike by Eduardo Vargas almost right on the goal line as the ball was rolling into the gaping net.
Though Australia ended up losing the match 3-1, the play made headlines in international and South Korean media. And South Korean fans took to social media to embrace Wilkinson as one of their own.
Wilkinson modestly attributed the play to luck.
"I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time," he said. "It was nice that I could be remembered for something in the World Cup. It was a huge occasion."
That signature play likely made Wilkinson more popular among South Korean fans than before. He earned nearly 67,000 votes in the All-Star balloting, more than forward Lee Keun-ho, who scored South Korea's lone goal in a 1-1 draw against Russia at the World Cup.
Though defense isn't exactly a priority at All-Star Games -- the score was 6-6 between Wilkinson's K League All-Stars and a team captained by retiring South Korean football star Park Ji-sung -- Wilkinson said he still had fun.
"It was a bit different because we're used to playing in the K League every week, being very serious," he said. "It's nice every now and then to have a joke and have a bit of fun and entertain the crowd. It was a huge honor to be on the All-Star team. The players helped me settle in and made me feel really welcome."
Since the end of the World Cup, Wilkinson played in two of the five matches Jeonbuk played. Jeonbuk went undefeated in those five contests, with three wins and two draws, and has suffered just one loss in its last 10 matches, dating back to April.
The ongoing run has placed Jeonbuk in second place with 32 points after 17 matches, just two behind the defending champ Pohang Steelers. Wilkinson said his club is in just the right position to go for the championship with 21 matches left.
"There are a lot of games to go. We've just got to keep doing what we're doing," he said. "We've got a big squad. We don't just rely on 11 players. We've got the whole squad that can come in and do the job. You need to have depth and you need to have a lot of players who can play well. Hopefully, we can continue and it'd be great if we can be the champion."
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