Taeguk Odyssey: Looking Back on South Korea’s March to Football History

By Chris Weir.

“FIFA rules do not allow co-hosting of the World Cup. As long as I am FIFA President that will not change.”

Joao Havelange was not a man to be taken lightly. The Brazilian had revolutionised FIFA in his 22 years at the helm, turning it into a commercial monster with the World Cup as it’s flagship product. His word on football was almost always the last.

It was a surprise, then, when South Korea and Japan were announced as co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup in May 1996.

The bid decision didn’t sit well with the Japanese, who until the eleventh hour had been confident of securing the rights on their own terms. Kenji Mori, the J League’s managing director, put it bluntly:

“This is the worst case scenario.”

The co-hosts were far from friendly neighbours, with Koreans having lived under the colonial rule of the Japanese for nearly fifty years, only being liberated after World War Two. With this announcement, a centuries-old rivalry would now be played out in a footballing arena.

Granted automatic qualification as hosts, both were expected to perform by their associations.  Japan had Parma’s Hidetoshi Nakata, the poster boy of Asian football, whilst Jun-ichi Inamoto had become the first of his country to play for Arsenal.  Shinji Ono, meanwhile, had just won the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord, and the nation were hopeful of a respectable showing on home turf.

South Korean expectations were equally high, if a little less realistic. Seol Ki-Hyeon had struggled for Anderlecht despite becoming the first player from the country to score in the Champions League, while Ahn Jung Hwan hadn’t set the world alight with Serie A’s Perugia.  Most of the squad was still based in Korea, including stalwart and captain Hong Myung-Bo, in a league that was busy finding it’s feet.

There were also questions off the pitch, some suggesting that coach Guus Hiddink wasn’t approaching the job with the gravitas it needed.

According to the New York Times’ Jeré Longman, his relationship with girlfriend Elizabeth was met with raised eyebrows in a country that favoured discretion and deference, while Hiddink’s decision to pick players based on their ability rather than background irritated rather than inspired. It was typically singleminded – part of the reason he was sacked from the Real Madrid job two years before was for stating publicly that Los Merengues lacked professionalism under president Lorenzo Sanz.

Hiddink’s lack of popularity wasn’t helped by his team losing most of its games as a guest in a CONCACAF tournament a year earlier, as well as being spanked 5-0 by the French at the Confederations Cup. His reputation was already wavering after a bitterly short spell with Betis followed the disaster in Madrid.

The future, for all parties, wasn’t clear.

Certainly, nobody expected footballing history to be made. France were heavy favourites for the tournament, with the top scorers of Serie A and the Premiership in David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry being fed by Zinedine Zidane. The latter had just scored that goal to win the Champions League for Real Madrid at Hampden,and was at the peak of his imperious powers.

Argentina were the other hot ticket. Everywhere you looked they had experience and quality, even on the bench where Marcelo Bielsa – demigod to footballing hipsters the world over – directed matters in his inimitable style.

With the draw made, the Koreans were placed in a difficult group alongside Poland, Portugal and the United States. Everybody expected the Iberians to qualify, but second spot and a ticket to the next round seemed achievable. Despite being ever present since 1990, the Americans had qualified from the group stage just once, while a weak Poland team was making its first appearance since 1986.

It was the latter who lined up against Team Korea on the 4th of June, the Europeans starting brightly with some early attacking forays.  The wall of noise greeting every Korean attack was deafening, something akin to the roar facing rockstars as they walk on stage at a concert.

Still, it was nothing compared to the hysteria unleashed in the 26th minute, when Hwang-Sun Hong swept in a cross from the left hand side. Where his marker was is a question that remains unanswered.

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Hwang-Sun Hong celebrates scoring against Poland

Joy turned to euphoria in the 53rd minute, Jerzy Dudek palming Yoo Sang-Chul’s screamer into the top corner. The Koreans had arrived, with Polish coach Jerzy Engel admitting his side had been bested by an energetic and enthused display.

After one game Korea were top of the Group, with Portugal coming unstuck 3-2 against a dogged USA. The hosts found the Americans a similarly tough nut to crack, only salvaging a late draw with Ahn’s 78th minute equaliser after Clint Mathis had opened the scoring.

As reported by Andrew Salmon in the Korea Times, the game itself was dominated by the recent death of two schoolchildren in a road accident involving American troops stationed in the country. It made for a tense atmosphere, but a draw suited both teams.

Portugal’s 4-0 trouncing sent Poland packing, but in truth it was a solitary highlight in a tournament that embarrassed the Selecçao. In their final game where a draw would do, Luis Figo, Rui Costa et al. failed to turn up , with Park Ji-Sung scoring the type of skilful finish that would see him earn a subsequent move to PSV. A one-nil victory for South Korea and passage to the next round.

The Japanese had also managed to progress, two wins and a draw meaning they finished ahead of Belgium and Russia in Group H. Sadly for the Samurais, however, they were then eliminated by a potent Turkish side inspired by Hasan Şaş. Ümit Davala’s 12th minute goal meant Korea stood alone as Asia’s last hope.

By this stage, their skill and fitness was winning many plaudits. Hiddink’s ability to spend the three months prior to the tournament fine tuning his squad was paying handsome dividends. The Koreans were hungrier, fresher, imbued with the confidence the Dutchman had instilled in them.

Still, everybody expected normal order to be restored when they faced Italy in the second round. The eager Korean attack would surely fire blanks against the world’s best defence. Even if Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta were both missing for the Azzurri, Gianluigi Buffon would stop the shots that Paolo Maldini deigned to let through.

It wouldn’t be long before the celebrations turned into accusations.

Korea signalled their intent from the off, winning a penalty in the opening minutes which Buffon managed to claw away, before Christian Vieri silenced the home crowd with a typically forceful header. What followed was an archetypal Italian performance right up until the 88th minute. After Christian Panucci failed to clear a simple cross, Seol swept a left footed shot gratefully home. Extra time and the golden goal loomed.

Given the cynical nature of the Italians throughout, it was perhaps a surprise that the only red card came for Francesco Totti, with referee Byron Moreno showing him a second yellow for diving. The Italians were apoplectic, but fury turned to despair when Ahn nodded in a whipped cross from another future PSV player in Lee Young-Pyo.

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Francesco Totti having been sent off against South Korea.

The fireworks crackling overhead were matched by the wild celebrations on the pitch, as the Korean bench ran to embrace their hero goalscorer. The result cost Giovanni Trappatoni his job, and a nation it’s pride.

It would be the highlight of Ahn Jung-Hwan’s career. 24 hours after that fateful goal, the  Perugia chairman cancelled his contract in perhaps the world’s worst case of sour grapes. Still, Ahn had other things to focus on, like a quarter final clash with Spain.

Before they won everything, the Spanish had an unshakeable tag of underachievers on the biggest stage. Chock full of quality yes, but too prone to failing under pressure and the hot lights of expectation. If you were to ask any Spaniard about the game in Gwangju today, you’d no doubt be greeted with a flurry of Latin profanities. Iván Helguera summed up the mood of a nation when he bemoaned “what happened here was robbery“.

Looking back on the highlight videos would make even Ashley Young wince at the lack of fair play. Spain were denied two clear goals, the first off the shoulder of Kim Tae-Young after Helguera was penalised for shirt-pulling. The second was a ruled-out header from Fernando Morientes. Despite frantic Spanish argument, The Egyptian referee agreed with his linesman that the ball had run out of play before being crossed. The highlights, which have surely been played in many a Spanish household since, showed otherwise.

The game went to a penalty shoot out and, after an ill-looking Joaquín missed, the talismanic captain Hong-Myung Bo fired Korea into the semi final. Whilst Hiddink gushed about dreams coming true, Iván Helguera admitted the torture that game had inflicted in a later interview with AS ;

“In my clenched fist, I had all the helplessness I felt inside, and I think that of the 39 million Spaniards who had watched that game.”

The debate about the apparent favouritism displayed towards the home side would continue, and still lingers today 14 years on.

Despite it though, Korea were now in a World Cup semi-final, in their home country, just 18 months after being rolled over 3-1 in the Gold Cup by Paulo Wanchope’s Costa Rica. The footage from the time speaks for itself, as a whole nation exalted in a state of unequalled, unfiltered joy. “Hidonggu” had led his youthful charges to footballing history.

Still, there’s wasn’t much time for celebration. Whilst few could argue that this was the worst German team in a generation, they had a dangerous amount of talent in their squad. Bernd Schneider and Carsten Ramelow had been part of the team that reached the Champions League Final with Bayer Leverkusen a few months previously, whilst their star player Michael Ballack was also a fixture. Oliver Kahn would go on to win the award for the tournaments best player, whilst Miroslav Klose was on the upward curve of an astonishing international career that would see him against Turkey to win the trophy 12 years later in Brazil.

It was here where the music stopped. Germany are the experts at ruining everybody’s fun, and Michael Ballack’s bittersweet strike (a booking meant he would miss the final) condemned the Koreans to a painful exit in a game that had the entire country gripped.

In the aftermath of the match against Turkey, president Kim Dae -Jung publicly thanked Hiddink and his men for their heroic display, whilst Korean Air guaranteed the coach four years of free air travel after the unprecedented events on the field. A divisive figure a month before, Hiddink was granted honorary citizenship as well as having Gwangju stadium renamed in his honour.

Nobody could have expected such success to last, but still many were left deflated when South Korea exited the 2006 World Cup at the first hurdle, edged by Switzerland and Raymond Domenech’s France.

The dream was over.

By that time, Hiddink had returned to PSV, winning three Dutch League titles and bringing them to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Only the away goals rule helped opponents AC Milan into that final in Istanbul, with Park Ji-Sung’s displays earning him a move to Manchester United in the summer.

Still, Korea’s run to the semi-final will forever be remembered, albeit with different emotions depending on whether you find yourself in downtown Seoul or at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.  But for Hiddink, Hong Myung-Bo and the vibrant Red Devils, this was a time where Eastern Promise well and truly delivered.

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