As joint host of the 2002 World Cup with Japan, South Korea were not expected to achieve a great deal in the tournament. Their squad was relatively unheralded but experienced Dutch coach Guus Hiddink imbued confidence.
A tough group of USA, Portugal and Poland were waiting for the South Koreans, but there was no fear factor for the team. Being a host they had one extra thing in their advantage: a fervent home support, which ensured all their games would be played surrounded by a sea of red and a wall of noise.
Dr Jung Woo Lee, a lecturer in sport and leisure policy, was living and studying in the country at the time, allowing himself to be swept up in the fervour around the tournament, as South Korea picked up seven points from their opening three games, progressing top of their group. Their success was rewarded with a second-round clash against the might of Italy.
“Before the 2002 World Cup, Korean fans had hoped that one day their national team would win a match at the tournament and would go through a group stage,” Dr Lee told Sky Sports. “The 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan was the sporting occasion where this dream of Korean football came true.”
Victories over Poland and Portugal were impressive but with Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero their knockout opponents, many thought South Korea had gone as far as they could. Before kick-off, South Korea fans paid homage to estranged political neighbours North Korea, raising cards titled “Again 1966” – alluding to the North’s 1-0 victory over Italy 36 years earlier.
South Korea had already missed a penalty when Christian Vieri gave Italy the lead in the 18th minute but the game, outside of the Korean peninsula, will be remembered for referee Byron Moreno’s handling of the fixture.
Hiddink’s side took an ultra-physical approach to the game, getting away with numerous fouls throughout. The Ecuadorian official added to the Italian anger by disallowing a what would have been a victory-sealing Damiano Tommasi goal for offside.
The aggressive tactics paid dividends in Daejeon as Seol Ki-hyeon scored an 88th-minute equaliser to take it to Golden Goal extra-time. Then with just minutes to play before penalties, Ahn Jung-hwan popped to send those in red into a euphoric state. The South Korean’s Serie A club, Perugia, showed their pettiness by trying to terminate his contract, while Moreno ended up in a New York prison after being convicted of trying to smuggle drugs into the USA from Ecuador eight years later.
The short-term impact, though, was South Korea progressing to face Spain. The entire country was gripped by the tournament, which had already surpassed expectations as patriotism swept the nation.
“Before the 2002 World Cup, the Korean national flag was considered a sacred object, and Korean people had hardly used the flag as a fashion item,” Dr Lee said. “As joyful nationalistic feeling dominated the country during the World Cup, people have begun to see the national flag as a more friendly and accessible object.
“It was the first time in Korea that people decorated their clothes and cars with the national flag. This was the moment the meaning attached to the flag changed from the holy and sacred to the popular and secular.”
Next up was Spain. This was not the all-conquering La Roja we have known over the last decade but it was still an impressive side which came to Gwangju. A spine including Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol and Fernando Hierro showed Spain’s strength. As the Europeans seemed stronger in defence than attack at this time, it was little surprise the game ended goalless in the 120 minutes played.
In the shoot-out a limping Joaquin had his penalty saved before Hong Myung-bo stepped up and made no mistake from the spot to win the tie. Cue mania.
“Few Koreans expected that the national team advanced to the semi-final, beating Italy and Spain respectively. When the Korean national side scored a goal at the round of 16 and quarter-final matches against these two top-notch teams and subsequently beat them, there was a sudden eruption of Korean nationalism and of euphoric feeling in the country,” Dr Lee said.
“Even some people expressed joyful emotion during the funeral service when they heard of the news. The success of the 2002 World Cup was so significant that Guus Hiddink received honorary citizenship of the Republic of Korea.”
Only Germany stood in the way of South Korea completing an incredible journey to the final. It was not to be, however, as Michael Ballack scored a 75th-minute winner in the semi-final. It was the end of a memorable dream but it had awoken a country to a game which had previously passed them by.
Dr Lee said: “The 2002 FIFA World Cup took place a few years after the East Asian Financial Crisis that negatively affected the South Korean economy. In the early 2000’s, Korea was gradually recovering from this economic difficulties. The impressive performance of the Korean team at the 2002 World Cup boosted Korean people’s confidence and made them proud of their nation once again.”
New national heroes had been born and a new football dynamic created by Hiddink and his squad. They are now on an equal footing with some of their more illustrious opponents thanks to 2002, it seems unlikely that they will be able to repeat that performance in Russia but the memories of doing it at home will live long in the memory.
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