A fiery South Korea, a toothless Italy, and the howls of corruption at the 2002 World Cup

A fiery South Korea, a toothless Italy, and the howls of corruption at the 2002 World Cup

This feature is a part of Improbable Triumphs

The 2002 World Cup held in Japan and South Korea is one best remembered for redemption. David Beckham got to banish his Argentine demons from four years prior, scoring a penalty against La Albiceleste to dump them out of the tournament at the group stage. While the original Ronaldo exorcised his own personal ghosts from France 98 by putting on a striking masterclass with eight goals as Brazil romped their way to a fifth title.

But really, the dual-hosted affair should be remembered as the World Cup of giant killings. The final in Yokohama may have been contested by the two most successful nations in World Cup history in Brazil and Germany, but it was a tournament that saw many a heavyweight crash out earlier than expected. Plucky underdog nations like Senegal and surprise semi-finalists Turkey performed miracles, but rather more infamously, South Korea were the big, albeit controversial, storyline from the tournament. 

Most improbable triumphs are celebrated and remembered with fondness, even from neutrals who have no horse running in the race. But South Korea’s victory over Italy in the second round in Daejeon is different. The controversy surrounding the fixture borders on becoming a full-blown conspiracy, meaning it’s a match remembered as one Italy had taken away from them rather than one South Korea won. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

But it’s perhaps notable that this particular result, and World Cup as a whole, is not remembered with much affection when many who consider it dubious are European and the villains in question are Asian and South American. Many of the nations expected to progress into the latter stages fell early. Reigning world champions France crashed out at the group stage without registering a single point. Then Spain, Portugal and Italy were all eliminated surprisingly early on in proceedings.

The decision to stage the World Cup over two countries on the Asian continent was controversial enough. At this point in history, Japan had never qualified for the finals and many questioned the decision to host a major footballing event in two countries separated by a sea. More questions were raised about how popular the sport football was in these countries and how the time difference would affect those on other continents who wanted to watch the games.

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In actual fact, the tournament went off without a hitch with fans of both host nations surprising the world with their fervent support for their teams. Many of the pre-tournament gripes were essentially Euro-centric whining.

So to the Daejeon World Cup Stadium, the site of intense Italian ire. The last time Italy suffered a loss this humiliating it was 1966 and it was South Korea’s neighbours to the north who dealt the knockout blow on world football’s biggest stage. Back then, Italian players were hounded out of the national team with rotten fruit, some never to play on the biggest stage ever again, but this time the Italian media and public were so insistent that dietrologia was at play here that the players got a free pass. 

Dietrologia, an Italian word meaning the official explanation of what happened, isn’t what really happened. In other words, it was a fix. After all, this was Italy. The three-time World Cup-winning Italian squad boasted a squad featuring superstars like Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Del Piero. There was absolutely no way minnows such as South Korea could beat a team such as Italy without some help. 

Italian fury was directed with singular intensity at Ecuadorian referee Bryan Moreno. His officiating of the second-round game was considered so inept by the Azzurri that members of the government joined the media chorus condemning Moreno’s performance. “The referee was a disgrace, absolutely scandalous,” said cabinet minister Franco Frattini. “I have never seen a game like it. It seemed as if they just sat around a table and decided to throw us out.”

Looking back at it now, it was an incredibly physical game full of marginal calls. Guus Hiddink, the South Korea manager at the time, set his side out with a high-pressing game-plan meaning the Korean players got up close and personal with their Italian counterparts. It was almost as if they knew the superstars could be rattled. And Italy; well they’ve never exactly shied away from the dark arts of football. 

The drama started early, South Korea were awarded a penalty in the fourth minute. Seol Ki-Hyeon ended up on the deck but, because of the camera angle, it’s incredibly hard to judge whether it was the correct call or not. Ahn Jung-hwan squandered the chance to give the Tigers of Asia an early lead, Buffon easily saving his effort. From there the game was essentially a succession of contentious decisions. 

There were elbows thrown, boots to the head, dives and plenty of argumentative pushing from both sides. The real debatable calls came in extra-time. First, Francesco Totti was dismissed for a dive that led to a second yellow card. Replays show there was some contact, but this was 2002 and Moreno, officiating in the biggest game of his career, wasn’t privy to VAR like referees are today. Then Damiano Tommasi had a goal ruled out for offside in what was by far the most marginal of calls. It was Italy’s fifth disallowed goal in the tournament. 

To add fuel to the murky conspiracy theories, Moreno would later go on to be embroiled in a number of high-profile controversies, including being investigated by FIFA for his handling of a game in Ecuador (13 added minutes and two late goals to win the match for the home side is always going to look sketchy) and a bizarre incident where he was found attempting to smuggle heroin into America.

But for South Korea, the star of the day was Ahn Jung-hwan. He might have missed a penalty but, with only a few minutes left of extra-time, he managed to find an extra burst of energy that allowed him to outjump Paolo Maldini to head a quite incredible Golden Goal past a helpless Buffon. It was the kind of goal that made him an instant icon in his homeland but ironically left him in professional limbo.

In what makes for quite the delicious subplot, at the time, Jung-Hwan was on loan at Serie A club Perugia and had scored a measly five goals in two seasons. His current employers didn’t take too kindly to him suddenly discovering his shooting boots. “He will never set foot in Perugia again. He only decided to play like a superstar once he was up against Italy,”  the owner of Perugia, Luciano Gaucci, seethed, “I consider this behaviour to be not only a wound to my national pride, but also an offensive act against a country which opened its doors to him two years ago.”

Ahn’s and South Korea’s World Cup fairy-tale wouldn’t end there, though; in the quarters they unceremoniously dumped Spain out on penalties much to the ignominy of the European media. Tales about host nations receiving “help” have persisted throughout World Cup history – FIFA are undeniably a corrupt organisation – but it’s impossible to prove and the allegations belittle what was an incredible performance by South Korea. 

Anger masks what was actually an appalling performance by Italy, both on the day and in the tournament. They could point fingers at Moreno all they want but the reality is that they spent most of the game launching aimless balls forward and failed to utilise the mercurial talents of Del Piero and Totti. Petty accusations of foul play act as a smokescreen for European arrogance: the Italians were humbled by the Koreans.

By Matthew Gibbs @Matthewleuan

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