I fall in love with underdogs at every major tournament, we all do. Cameroon at Italia ’90, Bulgaria at USA ’94, the Czech Republic at Euro ’96 and Croatia at France ’98. During the 2002 World Cup, it was South Korea, and I fell hard.
In the seconds that followed Ahn Yung Wan’s golden goal header that shocked the planet and dumped, many peoples favourites, Italy out of the 2002 World Cup, English pundit David Pleat boomed the followed opinion; “Italy have been beaten by sheer unadulterated vitality” albeit not the most football fan friendly sound bite, this sentence, for me at least, summed up what South Korean football was all about; business like, but excitably healthy and clinical. This set the blueprint for South Korea’s footballing ethos.
Whilst referring to South Korean footballers as ‘tanks’ who could ‘run all day long’ in the England seemed to be as patronizing & commonplace as labeling African teams ‘naive’, it did still suit them. It almost seems drilled into South Koreans that hard work is as important as ingenuity and skill. This can be put down to Guus Hiddink and he can be credited with enhancing South Korea’s already formidable attributes. In the semifinal in there was a banner which read ‘HIDDINK FOR PRESIDENT’ it is no surprise that the South Korea coach was considered a national treasure following his guidance of the 2002 World Cup co-hosts passage to the semi-finals. For his progression, Hiddink was offered the distinctive and elaborate ‘win bonus’ of an exclusive island villa on Jeju-Do off the coast of South Korea along with free flights on Asiana Airlines not to mention renaming the Gwanju arena ‘Guus Hiddink stadium’! Catchy.
Never before had they qualified past the group stage, no South East Asian side had! If you ask any Portuguese, Italian or Spanish football fan why Korea beat them at that tournament, you’d forgive them for blaming red card happy referees or, in Spain’s case, a linesman who seemed to have put a bet on the hosts. To blame benign officials would be as disingenuous as it is mean, the simple fact is that South Korea wanted it more.
I need no encouragement to relive those amazing days from twelve years ago, I can still vividly remember watching the Italy v South Korea game. A hot midday in Birmingham, England. Sat in a garden with a television set I had been thrilled to watch Korea stun Portugal as they dumped them out of the tournament with a sensational goal from Park Ji Sung days earlier. Italy, spearheaded by Vieri and Totti seemed certain to end the co-hosts’ fun with a dose of reality. It didn’t happen. Despite the Italians leading for a long spell, with two minutes remaining, Seol Ki Hyeon smashed in an equaliser. Then to the event by which I judge all World Cup moments; golden goal time (next goal wins), three minutes before a penalty shoot out, a deep cross into the box and Serie-A based Ahn Jung Hwan flicked a header past Buffon and into the net. Game over, South Korea had won. The primal squawk inside the stadium that greeted the goal sent shivers down my spine. I went crazy. Like, punching myself and swearing at the sky, crazy.
If South Korea can emulate one of their upsets from 2002 (beating Portugal 1-0, Italy 2-1 and Spain on penalties), it will be a surprise to many but probably not to the ‘red devils’ themselves who are a confident, consistent and young yet experienced side under the guidance of Korean legend Hyong Myung Bo. A large element of this squad achieved bronze at the London Olympics and, whilst not being their usual clinical selves in qualifying for Brazil 2014, they are certain to fancy themselves getting out of the group.
Whilst football hipsters the world over coo over up-and-coming Belgium, Fabio Capello’s Russia are a strong side who are confident of their chances, and Algeria cannot be overlooked either, their tenacity was almost rewarded in South Africa four years ago. I see group H as the poor man’s group of death. It’s a fascinating lineup and I cannot wait to see the drama unfurl.
Watch out for Arsenal’s Park and Swansea’s Ki.
Written by Phil Davis
Follow him on Twitter: @FuriousPigeon