FIFA World Cup moments: South Korea script fairytale run at 2002 event with help from refereeing blunders

History might simply state that co-host South Korea reached the semi-final of the 2002 FIFA World Cup thanks to victories over Italy and Spain, but faltered in the last four stage against Germany. From the outside, it might look like a pretty successful tournament for Guus Hiddink's side. But is that the entire story? No. Are there more layers to South Korea's run? Yes. Did they really deserved to reach semis? Well, that's debatable.

South Korea players celebrate their quarter-final victory over Spain at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. AFP

South Korea players celebrate their quarter-final victory over Spain at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. AFP

South Korea were selected as co-hosts of football's 2002 showpiece event along with Japan after FIFA brokered a deal between two countries. Earlier, South Korea and Japan presented the bids separately. The 2002 World Cup is the first and the only time when two countries hosted the event together. At that time, Japan had never qualified for the World Cup finals and the choice of hosts was met with some criticism in Europe, because the time zone was such that fans had to watch the matches in the morning.

But these minor squabbles were nothing when compared to what happened in the knockout stages of the tournament.

South Korea had a decent outing in the group stages. They overpowered the Polish team with a scoreline of 2-0 and then defeated Portugal 1-0. In between those two matches, they played out a 1-1 draw against the United States. Two wins and one draw meant South Korea made it to the next round, finishing on top of their group with seven points followed by the United States.

It was the Round of 16 tie between Koreans and the Italians that became memorable for the all the wrong reasons. The host nation was up against giants like Paolo Maldini, Gigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri and Francesco Totti. Hiddink wanted his players to press the Italians right from the word 'go'. The Koreans' high intensity game caused problems for Italians and in the fourth minute only, they conceded a penalty. Buffon, though, stepped up and saved Ahn Jung-hwan’s spot-kick. Later in the first-half,  Vieri's powerful header gave the Italians the lead.

Despite falling behind, the Koreans didn't lose heart and kept pressing their opponents. The relentlessness finally worked bore fruit in the 88th minute when Seol Ki-hyeon equalised. The game went to extra time and was poised for the penalties, but Ahn, once again showed his class with a terrific header in the 117th minute — a golden goal — to send his team and fans into frenzy.

Italy, a team of superstars, crashed out of the tournament. But that's not the end of the story. If Ahn was the hero of the match then the villain was referee Byron Moreno. The Ecuadorian was at fault numerous times, giving favourable decisions to the Koreans. Totti was sent off for diving, but it was harsh call. Damiano Tommasi had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside. There was a two-footed challenge on Gianluca Zambrotta by Choi Jin-cheul and Kim Tae-young elbowing Del Piero but the referee ignored both the incidents.

Such was the outrage in Italy, a country where football evokes high passions, that Ahn's loan contract with Serie A side Perugia was cancelled. The newspapers in Italy used headlines like "THIEVES" and "SHAME" and conspiracy theories started to make more noise. FIFA chief Sepp Blatter also came up with a statement, saying, "the mistakes had been down to human, not premeditated, errors."

Moreno's troubles after the match went up a notch as later, he was banned for 20 matches by the Ecuadorian federation over his handling of a league fixture between Liga de Quito and Barcelona Sporting Club. Apparently, he allowed 13 minutes of injury time at the end of the game during which Quito scored twice and won the tie 4-3. Years later, Moreno would go on to serve prison time for entering the John F Kennedy airport in New York with heroin strapped to his body.

Things become more complicated in the next round as the Koreans overcame the challenge from Spain. The winner was decided in the penalties with the Korea prevailing over their opponents 5-3, but once again, referee was under the spotlight. This time, it was Egypt's Gamal Al-Ghandour who disallowed two perfect goals for Spain. The press and fans in Spain, just like their Italian counterparts, were heavily critical of the referee and accused FIFA for going with referees who are favourable to the host nation.

South Korea's run came into an end in the semi-final against Germany thanks to goal from Michael Ballack, but there was no dearth in love for the Koreans in their own country. The footballers became superstars post the World Cup, and the Dutch-born Hiddink became a national icon. So much so that the Gwangju World Cup Stadium, where South Korea defeated Spain was also renamed as Guus Hiddink Stadium.

To read about other FIFA World Cup moments, click here.


Updated Date: May 26, 2018 19:12 PM

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