South Korea courted controversy on the way to the semi-finals in a stunning tournament for the cohosts
In May 1995, I was in my home town to see my team, Blackburn Rovers, pip Manchester United to the English Premier League title. Everyone in the town – and I mean everyone – was thrilled and talked about nothing else. I never thought it would happen again. While I was right when it came to the mighty Blue and Whites, I experienced something similar seven years later, but this time at a national level.
The whole of South Korea got behind the Taeguk Warriors - the national team's nickname - on their unforgettable run to the semi-final of the 2002 World Cup.
There were understandable nerves on how a first World Cup in Asia would be received internationally. That the tournament was also being co-hosted for the first time only added to the pressure. Nobody in South Korea wanted to be second best to Japan, on or off the pitch.
The team had experienced some poor results, including two 5-0 thrashings the previous summer against France and the Czech Republic. These led to misgivings over coach Guus Hiddink and the direction that he was taking the team in, heightened by a mediocre appearance in CONCAFAF’s Gold Cup in January 2002, when the team lost to the USA, drew with Cuba and Mexico, and then lost to Costa Rica.
The first target was to win a game. South Korea had not one a single match in its five World Cup appearances. But in 2020, the elusive win came in their first match, with a 2-0 win over Poland in Busan on a night that introduced the watching world to the Red Devils and the fanatical support they attracted inside and outside the stadiums.
The second target was to avoid being the first host nation not to make it past the opening group stage. That was duly achieved after the South Koreans drew with the USA, before clinching top spot in their group with a 1-0 win over Portugal on an unforgettable evening in Incheon. Park Ji-sung scored a fine winner, and then jumped into the open arms of Hiddink to provide one of the enduring images of the tournament.
Then things got really interesting. I remember taking the train south from Seoul for a second-round clash with Italy on a warm evening in Daejon. The mighty Azzurri were clear favourites, but given the energy from the fans inside the stadium, there was a sense that victory was possible. The feeling grew when the Red Devils showed off their tifo choreographed display before kick-off. It read: “Again 1966” – a reference to North Korea’s famous victory over the same European team 36 years earlier at the 1966 World Cup.
Ahn Jung-hwan missed an early penalty, and moments later Christian Vieri put the Italians ahead. As the minutes passed, Italy may not have looked like scoring a second goal, but South Korea were also struggling to create chances. It was time to start thinking about the end of the World Cup adventure. It had been pretty good: a fine group stage followed by a narrow defeat against true giants of the game. That would have been an honourable performance, but then Seol Ki-hyeon equalised late in the game, Francesco Totti was sent off, and then Ahn headed a golden goal.
All hell broke loose. The noise was deafening. People couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed. In the early hours of the morning, fans were still dancing in the streets of downtown Daejeon. It remains one of the best football experiences I have ever had. Then came a penalty shootout win over Spain that sent South Korea to a semi-final meeting with Germany. A few weeks earlier, nobody would have dared imagine such an outcome. Usually there is heartbreak after a semi-final defeat, but not this time. South Koreans felt that an incredible journey had come to an end, although there was still the prospect of a third/fourth place play-off with Turkey – a match involving two teams who were just delighted to have progressed so far in the tournament.
There were controversies, of course. Italy complained about their red card and the disallowed goal. At the time, however, it was mostly just the Italians – who had had a number of calls go against them in the group stage - who were upset. Even Italian journalists now admit that the match was not as controversial as their compatriots had made out at the time, and that their failure to progress was down to a lack of attacking intent after taking the lead. The quarter-final with Spain was different. They had two goals disallowed and were entitled to feel hard done by. Taken together, South Korea’s matches against Italy and Spain were held up by some as proof that the hosts had benefitted from dodgy refereeing and the favour of FIFA.
That view didn’t manage to puncture the World Cup bubble among South Korean fans. On the subway, in hairdressers, restaurants, bars – everywhere – matches were replayed all day on a loop. If there had been anyone in the country who wanted to escape the tournament –and I never met one – they would have been unable to do so. It was everywhere.
There was pride that the Reds had gone further than cohosts Japan, although I remember, as journalists watched the Samurai Blue’s opening 2-2 draw with Belgium just before South Korea’s game against Poland, that the locals were cheering Japanese goals.
While the tournament was an unqualified success in South Korea, the legacy is more debatable. For a while, there were bumper attendances at domestic K-League games, but that didn’t last much past the halfway stage of the following season. World Cup stadiums were too big for local use and often built with the idea of enabling fans to get out of cities quickly and easily rather than adding to the community’s sporting fabric. Young players have said they were inspired by the 2002 heroics, but tangible results are hard to see.
The memories will remain forever, however. The 2002 World Cup will never be forgotten in South Korea, and those who were there at the time will always count themselves very lucky.
John Duerden writes about Asian football for The Guardian, the BBC, The New York Times, World Soccer, Associated Press and ESPN. He is a columnist in China, South Korea, Australia, India and other parts of the region, and is the author of four books.