World Cup Tales: A Shot In The Ahn (2002)


Japan & South Korea, 2002

The first World Cup of the 21st Century brought the first tournament on a new continent, as South Korea and Japan’s joint bid beat off competition from Mexico to become the inaugural Asian hosts. Given the location of the tournament, European fans would be treated to a first, too. Namely being able to enjoy games during breakfast, as for once FIFA put the host nations before their watching customers. With two of the main competitors from the AFC given automatic places at the tournament, the door was left open for an Asian wildcard, and China duly took the opportunity by qualifying for the first time, with Saudi Arabia joining them for their third tournament in a row. Both Chile and Colombia missed out in South America, with Uruguay rejoining the fray and Ecuador arriving in the Far East for their maiden appearance. As had become custom, a new African side made their first appearance at the finals in the shape of Senegal, while Slovenia were the solitary newbies arriving from Europe. Portugal and Poland returned after 16 years away from the fold, though the Netherlands missed out for the first time since 1986.

The opening game kicked off in the Korean capital of Seoul, and much like in the first tournaments of the 80s and 90s, the holders were given a shock. France, without Zinedine Zidane, would have fancied rolling Senegal over without too much trouble, but once Grasshoppers Zurich midfielder Papa Bouba Diop had headed the Africans in front after half an hour, things began to look a little less straight-forward. Like Argentina twice before them, Roger Lemerre’s side had no answer to their unfancied counterparts, and the opening day defeat offered a bad omen for French chances. A goalless draw with Uruguay kept hopes alive in their second game, but goals from Dennis Rommedahl and Jon-Dahl Tomasson were enough to see Denmark knock the holders out, leaving France with the unenviable record of the worst performance from a defending champion in World Cup history. Despite blowing a three goal lead against Uruguay, Senegal finished behind the Danes in second. Fellow debutants Slovenia didn’t have it so easy in Group B, finishing bottom having lost all three games. Spain, by far the most exciting side of the opening round, came top with maximum points, while Paraguay sneaked into the second round past South Africa on goal difference, thanks to Nelson Cuevas’ late effort against Slovenia on Matchday 3. Brazil’s task in Group C looked fairly straightforward, though they would lose plenty of friends in the opening game thanks to Rivaldo’s histrionics. The Barcelona man’s face-holding after Hakan Unsal had kicked the ball at his shin earned the Turkish defender a second yellow card, and the Brazilian playmaker a lifetime of embarrassment. Straightforward 4-0 and 5-2 wins against China and Costa Rica ensured the Selecao’s safe passage, and Turkey would join them thanks to a superior goal difference. Group D saw co-hosts South Korea looking for their first ever World Cup win in a tough looking group, and they achieved it in their opening game, overcoming a dismal Poland in Busan. Portugal, fancied by many as Dark Horses, were blown away by the United States in their opening game, finding themselves 3-0 down after 36 minutes. Though Pauleta’s hat-trick helped them to a 4-0 humping of Poland in their next game, Ji-Sung Park would score the goal that eliminated them from the tournament, and send South Korea through as group winners.

Group E brought the best bits from 1990 and 1994 together in one melting pot with Germany, Republic of Ireland, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia all drawn together. This was a German side in crisis, having two years previously been dumped out of the Euros at the group stage, though an 8-0 win against the Saudi’s suggested all was not yet lost. Ireland would snatch back-to-back draws – the second, against Germany, secured with a 92nd minute Robbie Keane goal – that left them with the simple task of beating the Saudis to progress. They did, and Cameroon disappeared without so much as looking at a corner flag. The narrative in Group F revolved around England and Argentina, with Sven Goran-Eriksson’s side hoping to wreak revenge after being knocked out by the South Americans in 1998, and the game offered David Beckham a rare moment of redemption, as he rammed a first-half penalty past Pablo Cavallero to put England on the cusp of the second round. A goalless draw with Nigeria meant job done, and Argentina’s inability to beat Sweden meant they were heading home. He who laughs last and all that. Italy stuck to their typical ‘slow-start’ method of World Cup success, beating Ecuador, losing to Croatia and drawing with Mexico, leaving viewers with no idea whether this Italy team were any good or not. The other co-hosts found themselves in a tricky looking group too, but enjoyed a similar degree of success to South Korea, beating Russia and Tunisia to finish top ahead of Belgium.

Neither side from Group H would last much longer, however. Both Japan and Belgium bid farewell in the second round, beaten by Turkey and Brazil respectively. A penalty shootout defeat to Spain put paid to Ireland’s progress, while England enjoyed an easier task against a charitable Denmark side. Germany, those kings of the narrow victory, overcame Paraguay by a single goal – a scoreline that would begin to look familiar over the course of the next two weeks, and the United States secured their first ever quarter final place thanks to a 2-0 victory over Mexico. Senegal continued to surprise everyone by booking their place in the quarters thanks to a Golden Goal win against Sweden –the nerve-inducing gimmick didn’t stick around for much longer, though it would decide the final game of the second round.

There was more than a brief mention of 1966 and North Korea when it transpired Italy would play the co-hosts in the second round. Few had forgotten Pak Do-Ik’s famous goal at Roker Park that led to the Italian side being pelted with tomatoes as they returned home early from the World Cup, but surely this time it would be different. South Korea, after all, had only just recorded their first ever World Cup wins, while Giovanni Trapattoni had the cream of Serie A to call upon. There was something a little more wily about this Korea side, however. Under the guidance of Guus Hiddink, who’d taken the Netherlands to the semi-finals in France four years previous, the Red Devils were an attacking force to be reckoned with. The absence of first choice centre-back pairing Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro was a blow for the Italians, and after just five minutes it looked like their replacements might be in for a tricky evening. Christian Panucci was adjudged to have brough down Seoul Ki-Hyeon in the area, and the hosts were awarded a penalty, which Perugia striker Ahn Jung-Hwang saw saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Fifteen minutes later, Italy were in front thanks to a towering header from Christian Vieri. As the second half wore on, and chance after chance was spurned by the Italians, the feeling that, somehow, it wasn’t going to be their day arose. A minute from time, Korea equalised. With the Italians aggrieved, tempers began to flare, referee Byron Moreno lost sympathy, and Francesco Totti received his marching orders for a second yellow following a dive. The evening would go from bad to worse to worst for Trapattoni’s men, as Damiano Tommasi had looked to have won the game in the second half of extra-time, only for Moreno to rule it out for offside, and with three minutes left to play Ahn swept a cross into the bottom corner to send South Korea into dreamland – and the quarter-finals. Barry Davies’ damning indictment of the beaten side summed up the match “…and Italy are out because they will not learn!”

The fallout from the game was just as dramatic. Byron Moreno was on the end of a torrent of abuse, first from Italy’s players (“He was a bandit. Also, look at the images: he was too fat to referee!” – Christian Panucci), then from the Italian press (“worst referee, ever” – La Gazzetta dello Sport) and eventually from fans, with reports of death threats being sent to Moreno. Within a year, the Ecuadorian had retired from the game following investigations into his refereeing performances had led to lengthy suspensions. In 2011, he hit the headlines again after being caught smuggling heroin at JFK Airport. He eventually served 26 months in prison. Maybe those Italians had a point?

Still, Moreno’s suffering in the aftermath of the game was hardly as ill-deserved as that of the match-winner. Ahn Jung-Hwang, due to return to his loan spell Italy after the tournament and joint up with his Perugia teammates, was barred from the club by erratic owner Luciano Gaucci. The madcap supremo explained: “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer. I am a nationalist and I regard such behaviour not only as an affront to Italian pride but also an offence to a country which two years ago opened its doors to him.” Alright, mate. Ahn went on to sign for Shimizu S-Pulse in the J-League and enjoy a productive season in Japan. Two years later, Perugia were relegated. Ahn hasn’t been back to Italy since.

The controversy surrounding the hosts’ progress didn’t end there, however. In the quarter-final against Spain, two refereeing decisions saved South Korea from elimination, as first Ruben Baraja and then Fernando Morientes had goals disallowed – the latter during golden goal extra time – and the game went to penalties. Joaquin – who was adjudged to have dribbled the ball over the goal-line in the lead-up to Morientes’ ‘winner’ – was the unlucky party in the subsequent penalty shootout, though Korea’s kicks were all superb, and Hong Myung-Bo had the honour of scoring the penalty that secured the hosts place in history as the first Asian side to reach the World Cup semi-finals. They’d be joined by another surprise package as Turkey took just four minutes of extra-time to win through against Senegal, as İlhan Mansız scored the last ever Golden Goal. Elsewhere a Michael Ballack goal was enough for Germany to see off the United States, and Ronaldinho’s cheeky free-kick outfoxed David Seaman to secure a 2-1 win for Brazil over England.

The two semi-finals were tight affairs, but in the end the favourites won through – as they usually do. Ballack again the match winner for Germany, as the one real standout player in a German side far from vintage, breaking Korean hearts with 15 minutes of normal time remaining. In the other semi Ronaldo – who else? – edged out Turkey to set up a first World Cup final meeting between two of the most successful sides.

In the end, the final was a mismatch. Brazil had far too much for Germany, and Ronaldo read the scripted and played it out to perfection. Two goals in the final secured him the golden boot, and redemption for the disappointment of France 98 was achieved. He too, like Ahn, wouldn’t return to Italy after the tournament – Real Madrid had just splashed out €46m for the revitalised Brazilian’s signature. O Fenômeno was back.

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