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Iconic World Cup Moments: South Korea's dream run in the 2002 FIFA World Cup

In our Iconic World Cup Moments series, we take a look at South Korea's dream run in the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

South Korean players run towards support

South Korea’s players thank the home support at the 2002 World Cup

The 2002 FIFA World Cup was one of the most exciting tournaments in the history of football. It had its usual twists, turns, excitement, shocks and suspense. However, the World Cup would always be remembered as the tournament of the underdogs. Turkey, Senegal, South Korea and USA (to a certain extent) were the four teams who dominated headlines throughout and created the major shocks by defeating the heavyweights.

South Korea’s story was the biggest fairytale of the lot. Having qualified automatically (as co-hosts) for the tournament, not a lot was expected of the team. They had qualified in the previous four world cups but they had never gone beyond the first round. The 2002 edition was a different one though, as the team was playing on home soil. South Korea (fondly called the Taeguk warriors) was brilliant in the tournament with decisive tactics and an impressive playing style. But the controversy that surrounded them in the knock out stages would overshadow their progress for years to come.

When Guus Hiddink took over as coach of the national team, there was skepticism about the methods he employed. He readily omitted senior players and experimented with different players against top level opponents. The results were painful but he wanted to change the attitude of the players. He encouraged them to believe in themselves and think for themselves, a shift in attitude that inspired tremendous results. A run of seven unbeaten World Cup warm-ups turned the tide of opinion. Not only did he revamp the team with his training methods and tactics, he also revolutionalised the team by tearing down the existing hierarchy of picking players according to age and culture at the expense of young talent.

Known to be a great motivator he developed a mental toughness to the squad. He realized that he didn’t have a squad to deploy his total fluid football but the players were strong physically. So he deployed a 3-4-3 in which the front three would always press the defenders and the midfield was [conventional] so one defended, one attacked, and there were two on the wings. This proved to be a tactical master class as teams were caught off guard by the passing, ball keeping and counter attacking ethics of the South Korean team. The South Koreans success story can be owed a lot to the work by Guus Hiddink.

The fact that the World Cup was co-hosted by South Korea proved to be another inspiration for the success of the team on the field. Every match of the home team would have millions of Koreans swarming the outdoor screens. The stadium would be filled to capacity with the Red army accounting for more than 90% of the seats. The cheering, shouting and screeching during every match must have been heard in Japan. In each match, raucous fans waving giant national flags and beating gongs and drums turned stadiums into cauldrons of red, the team colour. The atmosphere created by the Koreans was a definite 12th man for the team which resulted in some awe-inspiring performances.

The Taeguk warriors’ key moments in the World Cup

South Korea were drawn into group D with Portugal, USA and Poland which saw them avoid all of the pre-tournament favourites, with the possible exception of Portugal.

South Korea 1- 0 Portugal

This was the biggest test for the Taeguk warriors in the group stages after defeating Poland and earning a draw against USA. Victory would guarantee knock out stages as group leaders. The game started off at a brisk pace but Portugal were on the back foot when they were reduced to ten men as João Pinto was shown a straight red for a reckless two-footed lunge on Park Ji-Sung. In spite of being a man down, Portugal was the team creating better chances.

However, Park Ji Sung made the Portuguese pay for all their missed opportunities by scoring a well taken goal to give the South Koreans the lead. South Korea held on to the lead in spite of a Portugal fightback to progress to the knock out stages as group winners, an outstanding achievement considering their previous history.

Round of 16: South Korea 2- 1 Italy

The Taeguk warriors dream run was in danger when they drew Italy (three time world champions) in their round of 16. This was a very physical match and it started off with South Korea being awarded a controversial penalty on the 4th minute which was thwarted by Gianluigi Buffon. Italy took the lead via a Christian Vieri header. Korea looked very threatening in spells during the game but was unable to create any clear-cut chances until the 88th minute.

Seol Ki-Hyeon scored a late equalizer that took the match into extra time. However, controversial refereeing decisions awaited the Italians in extra time as first Francesco Totti was sent off for a dive although replays clearly showed he was fouled and a legitimate goal was disallowed which would have allowed Italy to progress.

Finally, Ahn Jung-Hwan scored three minutes before the end of extra time to send his team into the quarter finals.

Quarter Finals: South Korea 5- 3 Spain (Korea win on penalties)

This game would again be remembered for poor refereeing decisions as South Korea went unpunished for some poor tackles and the two disallowed Spanish goals, one during normal time and the other one in the extra time. As was the case against Italy, the game was overshadowed by poor refereeing decisions. Korea went unpunished for some hard challenges and goals were again disallowed.

Ivan Helguera headed in a cross early in the second half, only for the goal to be disallowed for what the referee, Gamal Ghandour, claimed to be shirt pulling. The replays later showed there was very little wrong with the goal. The Koreans looked menacing in the closing stages of the match forcing Iker Casillas into fine saves.

In extra time, Joaquín broke down the right and crossed the ball for Fernando Morientes to head the ball into the net. Again, the goal was disallowed, this time as the linesman believed the ball had gone out for a goal kick. Replays again proved this decision to be incorrect.

However, with neither being able to score a goal the match went into penalties where South Korea were clinical from the penalty spot converting all their penalties.

South Korea's Dutch coach Guus Hiddink

South Korea’s Dutch coach Guus Hiddink

Semi Finals: South Korea 0- 1 Germany

South Korea’s remarkable World Cup came to an end against Germany in the semi-final. Despite a hard-working and disciplined performance, a single Michael Ballack goal proved to be enough for Germany to overcome the Taeguk Warriors. Unlike Korea’s two previous games against Italy and Spain, the semi-final was not marred by any incident.

Third Place Play off: South Korea 2- 3 Turkey

Turkey, another surprise package in this eventful World Cup had reached the semi-finals without even featuring for 48 years in a World Cup. Turkey’s ace striker Hakan Sukur scored the fastest-ever goal in 72-year World Cup history – only 11 seconds into action – lifting his side to 1-0 lead. South Korea’s midfielder Lee Eul-Yong leveled the score by sending home a brilliant curling free-kick in the 9th minute.

But only after four minutes, Ilhan Mansiz got a timely pass from Sukur and fired a close-range shot home, giving Turkey a 2-1 lead. The third Turkish goal was a brilliant link up play between Hakan Sukur and Illan Masiz with the latter firing his shot past the Korean ‘keeper. The second half saw the Koreans launching waves of attacks and threatening the Turkish goal. However, a fairytale comeback was thwarted by the ever impressive ‘keeper Rustu Recber.

Throughout the World Cup, South Korea put in some inspirational performances. They ensured that they were well disciplined, battled for the ball and played as a unit. Their superior fitness levels ensured they edged the matches against fatigued Italian and Spanish teams. They also scored late goals displaying a never say die attitude and a fantastic togetherness as a team. It is therefore a great shame, that such well spirited performances were overshadowed by poor refereeing decisions and allegations of alleged match fixing by officials.

The fact that they reached the semifinals without ever winning a game in the previous editions spoke volumes of their performances. They were the first nation outside Europe and South America to reach the semi-finals since the United States in 1930, ensuring that Asia was put firmly on the global football map. The success of the World Cup also ensured that European doors opened up for the talented Korean players. Park Ji Sung, one of their greatest superstars, ended up being signed by Manchester United, a tribute to the feats of the 2002 world cup. Ahn Jung-Hwan, another prolific player during the tournament, ended up playing in Germany.

The success of the World Cup has inspired a generation of stars who are doing well both at the club and country level. South Korea is now a team which features in the knock out stages of the World cup finals. If anything, the success of 2002 has ensured that South Korea cannot be taken lightly anymore.

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