South Korea's path through the 2002 World Cup could only be described as remarkable. Facing giants Italy in the second round, it was time to 'Be The Reds'...
When I bought my 2002 World Cup tickets the year before the tournament began, nobody really expected South Korea to progress beyond their first three games. In the space of twelve catastrophic weeks, Guus Hiddink’s side had been thrashed 5-0 by both France and the Czech Republic, replicating the scoreline – ironically, against a Dutch side coached by Hiddink himself - which had got national team legend Cha Bum Kun fired two games into France ’98. In response, Samsung hastily pulled a multi-million pound TV campaign based around the slogan ‘Hiddink, show us your ability’ and the Korean press derisively nicknamed the Dutchman ‘Mister 5-0’. “The players should be well equipped with advanced superior skills and be more than ready for the World Cup by now when the opening is less than two months away. Isn’t that what Hiddink is here for?” raged the Chosun Ilbo. Despite the optimism of the players - "If we try our hardest we can do well," said midfielder Choi Sung-yong – most Koreans remained downbeat. “I’ll be happy if we score one more goal than Japan,” was a common refrain ahead of the opening game against Poland.
Things changed utterly when the Poles were swept aside with ease, the 2-0 win South Korea’s first World Cup victory in fifteen attempts and five previous tournaments. A 1-1 draw with the USA was followed by the Park Ji-sung goal which eliminated nine-man Portugal and sent Hiddink’s team through as the winners of their group. Now here we were, high up in the Daejeon World Cup Stadium, lone dots in a tumultuous sea of scarlet bandanas, noise sticks and t-shirts with the slogan ‘Be The Reds’ written across the chest. A giant Korean flag was passed overhead; “Dae Han Min Guk!" (Korea Republic) reverberated across the stadium, hands thrusting cards with the words ‘Again 1966’ into the air at the opposite end of the ground. The only time you ever noticed the tiny pocket of Italians was when they stood for their anthem and walked out, gesticulating furiously, at the very end of the game.
Without the injured Alessandro Nesta and missing Fabio Cannavaro through suspension, Italy had been forced to reshuffle their line-up, Paulo Maldini moving into the centre of defence and Alessandro Del Piero partnering Christian Vieri up front. In a manic opening few minutes, the Italians came under pressure both on and off the pitch. “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo,” 40,000 Korean voices wail in unison. “Arirang gogaero neomeoganda…” (Crossing over Arirang pass, the one who abandoned me will not walk four kilometres before their feet ache in pain). Left back Francesco Coco seems to have walked a lot further when, hopelessly outpaced, he scythes down Park Ji-sung just to the right of the penalty area. Song Chong-gug takes the free kick, Seol Ki-hyeon – later of Fulham and Reading – rises to meet it and is grappled to the floor by Christian Panucci. “Penalty!” scream the commentators, but the visibly nervous Ahn Jung-hwan places his shot low to Buffon’s right and the Italian, arms flailing, palms the ball round the post.
The crowd goes quiet, but only momentarily. “Arirang” segues into a defiant “Oh, Pilsung Korea!” (Victory Korea!) as first Vieri then Totti miss with shots at goal. But then Totti pitches a corner to the near post and Vieri, bent almost double at the waist, heads in to the top of the net, wheeling away from goal with a finger to his lips.
And still the noise doesn’t stop. Nor, more importantly, do the Korean players, who have a progressively bigger share of possession as the Italians fall back, content to hold on to their single goal lead. An hour in to the game, Trapattoni replaces Del Pierro with the tigerish Rino Gattuso. Hiddink, in contrast, throws on another two forwards. His team literally chase the game, attacking in desperate waves but finding themselves increasingly vulnerable to the fast-paced Italian counters. Vieri scuffs a one-on-one wide of goal, and Lee Young-pyo’s knee cap deflects a shot inches wide of the post. With Hiddink pacing the touchline and two minutes left on the stadium clock a cross hits Panucci on the chest and spins back off his arm to Seol Ki-hyeon, who jabs the ball left-footed past the static Buffon. The stadium explodes, Hidding, dark-suited, pumps the air with his fist. In a madcap couple of minutes Vieri fluffs another chance and Seol hits the side netting as one half of the ground leap out of their seats.
Almost everything that could possibly happen on a football pitch happens in extra-time. First Totti turns Song Chong-gug and tumbles in the box as the defender slides in to the challenge. The Italian looks back, arms expectantly raised, only to see the Ecuadorian referee brandishing a second yellow card. Minutes later, Damiano Tomassi is wrongly flagged for offside as he touches the ball around the despairing Lee Woon-jae in the South Korean goal. The play takes on the pace and cadence of a basketball game. Hwang heads the ball into the ground and straight up at Buffon; Seol gets into a tangle and Lee, flying to his right, somehow manages to divert Gattuso’s rising shot over the bar.
We’re down to the last three minutes when Ulsan’s Lee Chun-soo rolls the ball on to the right boot of Lee Young-pyo. The cross swings in, “Ahn Jung-hwan…heading! Goooooal!” the commentators howl as 40,011 bodies leap maniacally around. Ahn, kissing his wedding ring, sprints off in the same direction Vieri took almost two hours before. Fireworks start exploding behind the stadium, the Korean players are all on their knees as the Italians, dumbfounded, sit silently by the touchline. Ahn leads a lap of honour and not for the last time that night a beer is shoved into my hands. “Dae han min guk!” roars out again, and this time it sounds like the whole city is singing.
“THIEVES” spits the Corriere dello Sport, black capitals blaring out from its front page. “Outrage!” says the slightly more measured La Gazetta dello Sport. “It was a scandal,” says Francesco Totti, so confident before the game. “The truth is the referee was set against us…They wanted us out”. “Korea is a powerful country. It’s clear they would have done something. I’ve never in my life seen refereeing that bad,” remarks the head of the Italian World Cup delegation, sardonically. “It was like something out of a comedy film." They were laughing in South Korea, anyway, where five million people had joyously spilled onto the streets. "Veni, vidi, vici," mocked the following day’s Chosun Ilbo.
“The gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again,” raged the Umbrian club’s president Luciano Gaucci when asked about South Korea’s match-winning goal. "I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer." Although Perugia later backtracked, Ahn swiftly moved on to Japan. Byron Moreno, the referee who sent off Totti, was banned for twenty games after adding twenty minutes of injury time to a game between LDU Quito and Barcelona Sporting Club, during which Quito scored twice to win the game. In September 2010 he was arrested at New York’s Kennedy Airport after police discovered ten bags of heroin strapped to his stomach and legs. As for ‘Mister 5-0’, Guus Hiddink was granted honorary Korean citizenship and had statues, hotels, a song and a football stadium all named in his honour. More than 200 books were published on the subject of ‘Hiddink syndrome’, Samsung hurriedly re-released their old TV campaign – which now had an estimated marketing value of over $1 billion – and sent executives to Holland to present Hiddink’s parents with a plaque of gratitude for their role in his birth.
But all that came later. Meanwhile, we all moved on to Gwangju, and a quarter-final versus Spain.