Japanese Football Comes of Age

Following a fine run at Russia 2018, Rohan Kaushik looks at the future prospects for Japanese football.

By Rohan Kaushik

It is the 92nd minute in Rostov as Keisuke Honda lines up to take a free kick. The ball is a comfortable 40 yards or so from goal and very few would dare to shoot at goal from that distance. Unknown to the Belgium & Chelsea shot-stopper in goal, Thibaut Courtois, those few individuals include… Keisuke Honda. With a short run-up, Honda strikes at goal. His knuckle-ball free-kick dips wickedly and Courtois scrambles away the ball in the last moment to prevent an embarrassment for Belgium.

Courtois then collects the ball from the ensuing Japanese corner and launches a deadly counter. The counter proves fatal for Japan as most of the blue samurai are caught high up the pitch. After a terrific run and incisive pass by De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier hits a low ball across the goal from the right flank. Romelu Lukaku then cleverly lets the ball run through his legs to super-sub Nacer Chadli in front of a wide-open net. Despite a valiant dive from the Japanese goalkeeper Kawashima, Chadli makes no mistake to put Belgium ahead 3-2 on the night. A few moments later, the referee blows his whistle to call time on arguably the best match of World Cup 2018 and what will surely go down as an all-time world cup classic. None of this matters to the Japanese team who appear shocked and in despair.

Yet, strangely enough, there is a feeling of joy among the fans of the beautiful game, world over. They had just witnessed 90 minutes of end to end attacking football in a world cup knock-out game. This game was a representation of football at its finest; a match played in the true spirit of the game with none of the dull, defensive, bad-blood filled cynical gameplay that has engulfed the game in modern times. Japan for one, may look back at this game as a missed opportunity. At the same time, they can be proud of the fact that they went toe to toe with Belgium’s golden generation; a team that has world class stars in literally every position on the pitch and then some more.

The implications of this match and Japan’s performances in Russia could have far reaching effects on the future of Japanese football…

Japan’s Run in to The World Cup

Not much was expected of Japan going in to this world cup. Japan had gone through a fairly turbulent world cup qualifying campaign with coach Halilhodzic never really sure of his starting eleven. To make matters worse, many of the established Europe-based stars were often dropped, especially the ‘Big 3 of Japanese Football’ (Kagawa, Okazaki and Honda). While it is true that these stars are ageing and not what they used to be, it is safe to assume that they are still a cut above much of the young talent coming through. Halilhodzic certainly had the right intentions with using fresh talent but his approach was far too chaotic and rubbed many the wrong way, not least the Japan Football Association (JFA). Unsurprisingly, Halilhodzic was fired 2 months before the World Cup.

While this certainly created a problem for Japan and might have rendered their world cup preparations moot, it appeared to be the right call. Many of the team’s players had felt alienated and there certainly seemed to be more to the issue then a string of bad results. So, the JFA made a very bold call by appointing Akira Nishino.


With less than two months to go before the World Cup, Nishino’s task appeared a herculean one. However, that said, Nishino is a coach with vast experience in the J-league. The first move he made was to recall all the Europe based stars. His final 23-man squad for the World Cup included very few players from the J-League. His reasoning was that Japan needs players who can perform in the big moments and not freeze up.

Nishino just had three games to get his team ready and firing for the world cup with friendlies lined up against Switzerland, Ghana and Paraguay. Japan’s games against Switzerland and Ghana ended in defeat but their play appeared to be strong and attack-minded. They did eventually manage to beat Paraguay 4-2 in their most encouraging performance in some time.

So, the stage was set for a very interesting world cup that no one had given Japan any chance so far. Japan were in for a stern test against Colombia in their first game.

Japan Surprises All

Jose Pekerman’s Colombia entered this World Cup looking to better their quarter final finish in Brazil 4 years ago. With Radamel Falcao finally back to spearhead the attack, it looked like Colombia were ready to announce their arrival on the big stage in style. Add to that, a star-studded team with the likes of James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, Carlos Bacca, Yerry Mina and Juan Fernando Quintero, it looked like Colombia might even be a ready for a tilt at the World Cup. In life though, things rarely go according to plan.

Five minutes into their opener against Japan, Yuya Osako raced away on a counter and his shot on goal was blocked by David Ospina. Shinji Kagawa followed up on the rebound and his goal bound shot was blocked by Carlos Sanchez’s outstretched hand. The referee didn’t hesitate to point to the spot and send Sanchez off. Kagawa calmly tucked away the following penalty to give Japan the lead. While Colombia did equalise through Quintero, their man disadvantage rendered their attack toothless. Colombia had shifted into a defensive mindset and it started to tell on their stamina as the game wore on. Japan would eventually get the winner after super-sub Keisuke Honda’s corner was headed in by Osako. It was a lead Japan would never relinquish and claim their (and Asia’s) first ever victory over South American opposition at the World Cup.

Japan’s second game against Senegal would turn out to be another see-saw game with each side periodically trading blows over 90 minutes. The match would finish 2-2 with substitute Honda once again doing the damage with a second half equaliser. With Japan needing just a draw in their final group game against Poland, Japan fielded an experimental line up. Coach Nishino made 6 changes to the team that had played against Senegal. The move however backfired and Japan lost 1-0 to the already eliminated Poland. Yet as fate would have it, Japan would still progress to the round of 16 despite being tied on the same points, goals scored and goal difference with Senegal. In another first, Japan would become the first team to progress to the knock out rounds on the basis of a better disciplinary record.

The dream knock out fixture with Belgium was set as history beckoned for the men from the land of the rising sun.

Japan vs Belgium – A Match for The Ages

Japan vs Belgium

Belgium were widely expected to win this game comfortably after their stellar group stage performances and the fact they were tipped as World Cup contenders. What panned out though had Belgium in shock for a good portion of the game and turned into an absolute roller coaster of a game.

Although Belgium generally looked dominant in the first half, Japan were organized defensively and looked to attack on every opportunity they could get, throwing numbers forward in attack. Additionally, Japan looked very composed in possession when they had the ball. When the whistle blew for half time, it appeared as though it would be a matter of time before Belgium took total control over proceedings. Japan clearly had other ideas.

The blue samurai raced into a two-goal lead within the first ten minutes of the restart through Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui (who was having a stellar World Cup). All of a sudden, it seemed as though Belgium were staring at a shock exit. Credit must however go to Belgium’s gaffer Roberto Martinez for recognising Japan’s age-old issue with physical play. Off went the speed and silky dribbling skills of Carrasco and Mertens and on came the physically imposing Fellaini and Chadli. In an all too familiar turn of events, Belgium started bombarding the penalty area with dangerous crosses. The pressure soon told and Belgium were soon level through a freak header from Vertonghen and a powerful point-blank header from Fellaini. It was here that perhaps Akira Nishino made his only mistake as Japan’s coach in the world cup. There appeared to be a hesitation on his part to bring on fresh legs and perhaps he waited a little too long to bring on Keisuke Honda.

The roller coaster nature of this game still served up enough chances for Japan as well as Belgium to win it. The fatal blow for Japan eventually arrived in the most cruel fashion in the 93rd minute and Chadli made no mistake to put Belgium through to the quarter finals. Many, including Fabio Capello felt that Japan were perhaps a bit too naive after taking a two-goal lead and should have been more cynical. While there is certainly an element of truth to that, the game could so easily have ended differently. Such are the fine margins of sport at this level.

The Positives & The Japanese Way

Russia 2018 was the third time in history that Japan had made it to the Round of 16 at the World Cup and got knocked out, just the same. Something definitely felt markedly different this time around though. When Japan’s golden generation made the cut in 2002, their performances were solid and it was on home soil. Granted, Japan won two games in the group stage but Troussier’s approach to the game was more conservative. The very fact that he dropped future national team legend Shunsuke Nakamura and regularly deployed the defensive minded Myojin and Toda serve to highlight this.

When Japan repeated the feat in 2010 in South Africa, the brand of football was once again defensive. Although Japanese football had progressed significantly enough since 2002, Takeshi Okada’s inability to coax the best out of the team’s talents, led to him reverting to his trademark defensive style. Even though Japan performed well in South Africa, a huge portion of the credit must go to arguably their best ever central defensive pairing of Yuji ‘Bomberhead’ Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Japan’s version of Beckenbauer). This was probably the only time in their history that Japan didn’t look susceptible to crosses.

Fast-forward to 2018 and it appears as though Japan have finally embraced their true identity. For the first time in all their world cups, Japan played with the fast-passing, team work and flair that has come to characterise their play over the years. All too often, Japan have fallen apart on the big stage. Coach Nishino clearly recognised Japan’s short comings from previous World Cups and picked a team that knew how to handle the pressure on the big stage. At no point did Japan appear fazed or mentally rattled. This was particularly highlighted in the game against Senegal when Japan twice came back from behind to level the scores. Throughout Nishino’s coaching career, he has always chosen to go all out when the odds were stacked against him. Gamba Osaka’s 3-5 loss to Manchester United in the FIFA Club World Cup several years is a case in point. So, what then of individual performances?

Individuals Matter

Unsurprisingly, a good chunk of Japan’s best play came from its top-class midfielders. Veteran super stars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda showed they still had something left in the tank and were decisive in Japan’s most crucial moments. Captain Makoto Hasebe had a fine world cup in central midfield and kept the team’s shape and balance. However, it is fair to say that he was outshone by his central mid-field partner Gaku Shibasaki. Shibasaki has quietly become one of Japan’s best players in the last few years. He first came under the spotlight when his 2-goal performance for Kashima Antlers against Real Madrid nearly pushed the Galacticos to the brink in the FIFA Club World Cup final. He then moved to Tenerife in the Spanish Segunda where his great performances earned him a move to Getafe. Shibasaki had a terrific world cup with his energetic all round displays and ability to dictate the game from deep.

Above all these performances though, the biggest surprise came from wide midfielder cum winger Takashi Inui. He was arguably Japan’s star performer and his pace & ability to cut in from the left flank caused opposition defences no end of problems. He was justly rewarded with 2 terrific goals for his efforts. The most surprising part is that at 30 years of old, Inui is no spring chicken or the latest find. Strangely, in this last decade of ‘Kagawa-Honda-Okazaki’ dominance, Inui has largely been ignored for national team duties. He has quietly made a name for himself in Europe with strong performances in Germany and then with La Liga surprise package Eibar. It is only fitting that high flying Real Betis have signed the tricky winger.

Other noteworthy performances also came from the likes of Fortuna Dusseldorf winger Genki Haraguchi with his tireless running; and from the evergreen Yuto Nagatomo. The long-time Inter Milan and current Galatasaray left wing back provides such a 2-way presence on the flanks that he can never be ignored. It is hard to imagine Japan getting this far without his lung bursting forays into the attacking third. Hiroki Sakai also ran himself into the ground on the right side of defense.

So where does Japan go from here?

The Future Looks Bright

With Honda, Hasebe and Gotoku Sakai all announcing their retirement after the World Cup, it looks as though Japan is set for an exciting new era. It is expected that the likes of Kagawa, Maya Yoshida and Okazaki will be eased out over the coming years. The time has come for the likes of Shibasaki and the highly promising Gen Shoji to don the mantle and take Japan forward. Players like Takashi Usami, Takuma Asano and Shoya Nakajima could have very important roles to play over the next few years.

Hajime Moriyasu

The announcement of former Sanfrecce Hiroshima and current Japanese Olympic team manager Hajime Moriyasu as the new national team coach is a step in the right direction. It is an indication that Japan has well and truly started embracing their true identity; perhaps a sign that all answers lie within and not externally.

Could the sun finally be rising over the land of cherry blossoms? Exciting times lie ahead…


Japan’s Road to Footballing Glory

With the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia only weeks away, Rohan Kaushik takes an in-depth look at Japan. Might the Samurai Blue push further than the last 16 this time around?

By Rohan Kaushik

Japan is a country known for its aesthetic, disciplined, organised and methodical approach towards most things in life. In short, order and beauty are at the core of its culture. To be sure, football in Japan is no different and is symbolic of the Japanese way. Six consecutive FIFA World Cup appearances is a testament to this. Their short passing game has sometimes been dubbed in the media as ‘Oriental Style Tiki-Taka’. Over the years, this style of play within a well-structured team set-up has made them a dominant force in Asia. They have also shown on quite a few occasions that they can go toe to toe with the world’s best.

Yet for all of the technical mastery and organisation, there is still a very strong sense that Japan are a cut below football’s truly elite. The evidence is there for everyone to see with their best World Cup finish being the round of 16, which they achieved on home soil in 2002 and again in South Africa 2010. So what is holding Japan back?

Blast from the Past

Japan’s rise to the top in Asia in the 90s was nothing short of meteoric. Prior to the 90s the national team’s only major achievement in world football was a bronze medal finish in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. A large portion of the credit for this finish must be attributed to the legendary German coach Dettmar Cramer who laid the foundation for a strong national team in the early 60s. Post the 60s, Japanese football once again faded from the world football scene until the formation of the J-League in the 90s.

It didn’t take long for the league’s formation to have a strong effect on the national team. Japan only narrowly missed out on qualification for the World Cup in ’94 due to conceding a last minute equaliser against Iraq. The benefits of the league’s commercialisation, professional approach and grassroots programs would go on to inspire a whole generation of footballers in Japan. The first indication of this came about in the Olympics in 1996.

Clubbed in a strong group with Nigeria, Brazil and Hungary, Japan’s route to the knockout rounds looked near-impossible. However, they would go on to cause quite a stir by defeating Brazil and only narrowly missing out on a knockout berth due to an inferior goal difference. Nigeria would then go on to win the tournament and Brazil would finish with a Bronze Medal. The man responsible for this impressive showing was Akira Nishino, a former national team player himself (more on this man later).

More success would follow for the national team with highly impressive showings in the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999, where they would only lose out to Spain in the finals. Japan would also make its first World Cup appearance in France ’98 and despite losing all 3 games, they would put up a respectable showing and even score their first goal in the competition. Four years later on home soil, Japan would go one better with a round of 16 finish only losing out to eventual semi-finalists Turkey.

All of Japan’s impressive showings in the late 90s and early 2000s came courtesy their ‘Golden Generation’. The likes of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Ono, Junichi Inamoto and Shunsuke Nakamura among others were all by products of the J-League and in many ways paved the way for Japanese footballers’ success on the world stage.

The Post-Golden Generation Era

Japan’s golden generation would have one final crack at footballing glory at the 2006 World Cup, but would come spectacularly undone at the showpiece tournament. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Australia, largely underwhelming performances against Croatia and Brazil would see them eliminated at the group stage. Interestingly enough, their performances prior to the tournament had people tipping them to do great things at the World Cup.

However, things would turn out differently for the Samurai Blue in South Africa 2010. Despite many being sceptical of their chances in South Africa, Japan would once again go on to make the knockout rounds only losing out to Paraguay on penalties. Following this impressive finish, Japan would then go on to its best era since its golden generation. Several of its national team members would go on to ply their trade in Europe with great success. Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda would become mainstays of the national team (and in many ways, still are). That said, in similar fashion to 2006, the national team would once again implode on the big stage in Brazil 2014. This would come in stark contrast to Keisuke Honda’s belief that Japan could reach the semi-finals.

Japan’s Issues

Despite Japan’s generally strong technical performances, their final results on the world stage tell a different story. Japan’s issues on this front are multi-fold. A criticism that has often been levelled at Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side over the last decade is their inability to finish off chances in spite of dominating possession. The same can often be said of Japan; well known for its top class midfielders and wingbacks, but at the end of the day, goals win matches and the island nation has still to produce a truly world class striker or centre forward.

Another problem which is often associated with the national team is its inability to break down tight defences (yes, the park-the-bus kind). This is a trend that is often witnessed even when Japan faces technically inferior teams in Asia. The lack of a player who can produce that X-factor in a game by getting past 2 or 3 players has often hurt their chances. To compound this problem, Japan’s players aren’t always the most imposing physically. While this is a problem that can be masked with the presence of some lighting quick, terrific dribblers, this is rarely the case with Japan.

On the world stage especially, Japan has come unstuck against superior opposition when their physicality or the lack of it has been put to the test. A classic example of this came against the Ivory Coast in Brazil 2014. When leading 1-0, Japan’s coach Alberto Zaccheroni brought on the ageing Yasuhito Endo in a bizarre substitution. With Endo being unable to close down the Ivory Coast wingers quick enough, the Japanese defence started getting bombarded with crosses and the pressure eventually told. Japan conceded 2 goals in as many minutes and then went on to lose the game.

The Mental Block

In a team sport like football, the emphasis on the collective takes precedence over the individual. Yet, perhaps in Japan, this mindset has been taken a bit more seriously than in other places. Strong team ethics and discipline are a part of most things in the Japanese way of life and they have transferred many of these characteristics to football.

Early accounts from the initial days of the J-League tell stories of how superstar foreign players and coaches had more than one role. While adding a sprinkling of star dust to the league, they also had to often get the Japanese players to come out of their shell and express themselves more openly. Brazilian legend Zico played a huge role in this regard during his first stint as a player in Kashima Antlers and later on as the coach of national team. Dunga also became notorious for teaching his colleagues at Jubilo Iwata how to dive and con referees.

Also, Japan’s French coach during the 2002 World Cup, Philippe Troussier once remarked that Japanese people follow rules so strictly that they wouldn’t even jump a traffic light in the wee hours of the morning when there was no traffic. Troussier, aka The White Witch Doctor, also became well known for instilling an aggressive approach into the Japanese national team and infamously left Shunsuke Nakamura out of the World Cup squad in 2002 citing his slight build and lack of aggression.

The general lack of powerful personalities within the squad has time and again resulted in Japan falling short at important moments. Whenever the team has needed that something extra special, the lack of players with the ability to drive through the defence or come with up a moment of magic or show that extra fire has really hurt Japan’s chances.

This was also highlighted by the recently sacked Vahid Halilhodzic, their coach throughout the 2018 World Cup Qualification Campaign. Halilu as he is known in the Japanese press constantly reiterated the need for Japanese players to be very strong in one on one duels. Halilhodzic’s tenure in the Japan hot seat was generally controversial throughout. His decision to drop established stars such as Kagawa, Honda and Okazaki often didn’t sit well with the footballing hierarchy in Japan. While his ruffle-the-feathers direct approach may have been a step in the right direction for Japan, he may have possibly been too extreme in his methods. Hence, the decision to sack him at the eleventh hour may have come as a relief to many players and fans alike; especially with the mixed results and the constantly changing first eleven.

So who do Japan turn to in their hour of need ?

Enter Akira Nishino

At 63 years old, Nishino is no spring chicken in the world of coaching. If anything, the JFA (Japanese Football Federation) couldn’t have gone with a better choice. Nishino started his coaching career in fine fashion when he led the Japanese Olympic Team to a victory over a much fancied Brazil side in the 96’ Olympics. He then went on to further cement his reputation as a rising star by coaching Kashiwa Reysol to its first piece of silverware in Japan. In fact, his tenure at the club, is considered to be one of the club’s finest in its history.

Following his stint at Kashiwa, Nishino became the manager of Gamba Osaka and this is where his name will forever be etched in Japanese domestic football history. He led Gamba to several domestic titles over the course of 9 years. During this time, Gamba Osaka developed a reputation for being one of the J-League’s most lethal attacking sides. While they did have some great defenders in the side as well, Gamba Osaka had one of the leakiest defences for a top team in the league. They would often win by outscoring the opposition. Also, a trait that became synonymous with Nishino during his Gamba years was his all or nothing approach, when the team was trailing the opponent in crunch games. Hence, he would often make bold attacking substitutions when needed. To top it all, his crowning moment as a Gamba manager arrived when he led them to a maiden AFC Champions League title in 2008 in emphatic fashion.

An interesting caveat to his management career at Gamba Osaka is the fact that he led them to just one J-League title in a decade long stint. His high octane attacking style often couldn’t be sustained through a gruelling league season and was far more suited to shorter cup competitions.  In many ways his approach and stint at the club is reminiscent of Carlo Ancelotti’s time at AC Milan which was around the same time. Interestingly enough, for all of Carlo Ancelotti’s success in the UEFA Champions League, he too has had limited success with league titles.

The pertinent question, however is, can Nishino lead Japan to their footballing El Dorado or at the very least avoid a footballing disaster at the World Cup? For starters, time certainly isn’t on Nishino’s side with roughly a month to go before the footballing extravaganza kicks off in Russia. Also, has such an assignment come a little too late in his career? His recent domestic spells at Vissel Kobe and Nagoya Grampus have been very underwhelming to say the least. There is a sense that his enthusiasm, drive and passion as a coach have diminished over the years.

Nishino though, sounds very optimistic and is completely up for the challenge. He has publicly stated his desire to take Japan to the knockout rounds and beyond. In addition, he has also acknowledged the importance of Halilhodzic’s emphasis on strong individual play while also stressing the need for Japan to stick close to its roots and play good collective attacking football.

Japan have been placed in a tough group with Senegal, Colombia and Poland and many see Japan as rank outsiders to even make it out of this group. That said, this is a cup competition which has often been Nishino’s greatest strength. If his track record is anything to go by, then Japan is going to need every bit of that high octane, all or nothing approach.

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

An in-depth view at South Korea’s mercurial journey during the 2002 World Cup they part-hosted.

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.

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.

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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