Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Greatest Game: South Korea 2 Italy 1

When I bought my 2002 World Cup tickets the year before the tournament began, few people seriously expected South Korea to qualify past the group stage. In the space of three months, Guus Hiddink’s side had been thrashed 5-0 by both France and the Czech Republic, mirroring the scoreline (ironically, against a Dutch side coached by Hiddink) which got Cha Bum Kun fired two games in to France ’98. Samsung hastily withdrew a TV campaign which ended with the tagline ‘Hiddink, show us your ability’ and the Korean press derisively nicknamed him ‘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 of the people I knew were relatively downbeat. “I’ll be happy if we score one more goal than Japan,” a Korean friend confided minutes before the start of the opening game against Poland.

But the Poles were swept aside with ease, a 2-0 win giving the Koreans their first World Cup victory in fifteen attempts. And now, four days after Park Ji-sung’s goal had beaten nine-man Portugal and sent Hiddink’s team through as the winners of their group, here we were, high up at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium, lone dots in a tumultuous expanse of scarlet bandanas, noise sticks and t-shirts with the slogan ‘Be The Reds’ written across the chest. A giant Taegeukgi was passed overhead; “Dae Han Min Guk!" (Korea Republic) reverberated across the stadium, hands thrusting the words ‘Again 1966’ into the air. The only time you 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 Nesto and suspended Cannavaro, Italy start with Paolo Maldini at the centre of defence and Alessandro Del Piero partnering Christian Vieri up front. They came under pressure immediately, both on and off the pitch. “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo,” the Korean fans boom. “Arirang gogaero neomeoganda…” (Crossing over Arirang pass, the one who abandoned me will not walk four kilometres before their feet ache in pain). Coco, outpaced, scythes down Park Ji-sung, Song Chong-gug takes the free-kick from the right and Seol Ki-hyeon is grappled to the floor by Christian Panucci. “Penalty!” scream the commentators, but Ahn Jung-hwan nervously places his shot low to Buffon’s right and the Italian, arms flailing, palms the ball round the post.

The crowd quietens, but only momentarily. Arirang” segues into “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 with a finger to his lips.

The noise doesn’t stop. Nor do the Korean players, who have more of the possession as the Italians fall back, content to hold their lead. On the hour, Del Pierro is replaced by Gattuso; Hiddink, in contrast, brings on another two forwards. His team attack in desperate waves, but are more and more vulnerable to the counter. Vieri scuffs a one-on-one, and Lee Young-pyo’s knee deflects a goalbound shot inches wide of the post. There are only two minutes left when 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, Hiddink, dark-suited, pumps the air with his fist. In a madcap couple of minutes, Vieri misses again and Seol hits the side netting with 39,000 fans already out of their seats.

Almost everything that could possibly happen on a football pitch happens in extra-time. Totti turns Song Chong-gug and tumbles in the box as the defender slides to make a challenge. He looks back, arms raised, only to see the referee, correctly, reaching into his pocket for a second yellow card. Minutes later, Damiano Tomassi is wrongly flagged for offside as he touches the ball around Lee Woon-jae. The play takes on the 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.

There are three minutes left before penalties when Lee Chun-soo rolls the ball back to Lee Young-pyo. The cross swings in right-footed, “Ahn Jung-hwan…heading! Goooooal!” the commentators howl in unison. Ahn, kissing his wedding ring, sprints off in the same direction as Vieri. Fireworks go off, the Korean players are all on their knees as the Italians, dumbfounded, sit silently by the touchline. Ahn leads a lap of honour. 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, 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,” Luciano Gaucci said of South Korea’s matchwinner. "I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer." Although he later backtracked, Ahn moved on to Japan. Byron Moreno, the Ecuadorian referee, was banned for twenty games after allowing twenty minutes of injury time in which LDU Quito scored twice to defeat Barcelona Sporting Club, and retired as a referee. 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 Korean citizenship and had statues, hotels, a song and a football stadium named in his honour. More than 200 books were published on the subject of ‘Hiddink syndrome’, Samsung hurriedly re-released their old TV campaign (it would eventually have an estimated marketing value of over $1 billion), and presented Hiddink’s parents with a plaque of appreciation.

But before all that, we moved on to Gwangju, and a quarter-final against Spain.


  1. I spent about a month in Seoul in the early part of 1996 before South Korea/Japan had been awarded the World Cup. People in the office (with a few exceptions) seemed largely oblivious to their countries attempts to land the competition. Anyway come 2002 they were quite clearly up for it and the support they gave there team was tremendous. Would have loved to have been at one of their games. It struck me at the time how polite they are as a nation which seemed at odds with their ability to create noise at a football match.

  2. Korean are usually very polite but (mostly due to the historical results of their unforunate positioning between Japan and China)very nationalistic too. There was a fantastic atmosphere at Daejeon and Gwangju but it was all a bit more muted when the K-League got back underway a few weeks later.