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South Korea at the 2002 World Cup: A Tale of Dreams or Corruption?

South Korea at the 2002 World Cup

A host nation, with no household names and having never won a World Cup match, reaches the 2002 World Cup Semi-Final. Was this journey for South Korea a fairy-tale, or something more sinister …?  

Forget 2018, the 2002 World Cup was the real tournament of the underdogs. Yes, it ended in a showdown between the two international heavyweights, Brazil and Germany, but dig a bit deeper and you get some magic… 

Senegal defeating holders France on the way to the Quarters. Hosts South Korea lighting up a nation as they stormed into the Semi’s. Turkey joining them there. Was it too good to be true? Well, the Korean storm certainly left a taste of European fury in its wake.

The Red Devils

Before the 2002 World Cup, many European commentators questioned the legitimacy of holding football’s greatest exhibition in two nations with little footballing history (Japan and South Korea). But, as the critics rained in, Korean fan group The Red Devils were using the emerging popularity of the Internet to build a powerful coalition of supporters to shut them up. A country tainted by dictatorship and division, they wanted to show the world something different …

“The world will remember the images of patriotic and organized gatherings of millions of Red Devils which replaced the past memories of militant and angry protesters” –

Florence Lowe-Lee, Korea Times

A 7 million strong sea of red would flood the streets for South Korea’s Semi-final against Germany. The energy and spirit of the fans off the pitch reflected in the endless determination and intensity of the players on it. Ex-Real Madrid boss Guus Hiddink drilled his team into a high-pressing, in-yer-face, style of football. The likes of Ahn Jung-hwan, Seol Ki-hyeon and a young Park-Ji Sung were remarked upon for their seemingly limitless banks of energy.

“It should be an advantage to have an extra day to recover in normal circumstances, but when I look at South Korea I get the feeling they would happily play us tomorrow – German coach Rudi Voller before their Semi-Final. But it’s not their incredible team spirit that this South Korea team are remembered by …

After emerging from the group-stage with impressive wins over Poland and Portugal, they faced an intimidating Italy in the last-16. No one expected the host’s shock 2-1 victory. Least of all the Italians themselves

It was clear from the outset that the Azzuri were taken aback by Korea’s aggressive style. More so though by the Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno’s lack of punishment for it. Kicks and elbows went unpenalised, Totti was sent off for a supposed dive and Italy’s golden goal was chalked off for a tight offside. And as Ahn Jung-hwan sent South Korea into the quarter-finals, the Italian players, press, and even government, cried foul. A theft at the hand of Moreno was slathered over the front-pages.

For many, this was the referee furthering FIFA’s goals of popularising football in Asia. The better South Korea did, the better it was for world football. Rules or legitimacy weren’t as important. This view wasn’t exactly dispelled by Korea’s quarter-final tie with Spain. As millions descended on to the streets, Gamal Al-Ghandour would follow Moreno into refereeing history for all the wrong reasons …

After a relatively uneventful first half, Ghandour bathed the tie in controversy by disallowing two seemingly legitimate Spanish goals. The first for an invisible foul on a defender, the second because the ball ‘went out of play’ (it didn’t). Couple this with a number of bizarre offside calls and South Korea’s historic victory on penalties looks far from legitimate. The Koreans didn’t care, they’d reached the 2002 World Cup Semi-final, and tbh, it didn’t matter to them how they’d got there.

Cue extraordinary scenes: Spanish players were physically held back from the referee by their coach Jose Camacho as the Red Devils joyously celebrated with their heroes in the background. Paul Hayward, of The Telegraph, called it a ‘farce’, Camacho angrily declared that ‘If Spain didn’t win, it’s because they didn’t let us win.’ Fury had erupted on the European continent, a fury that would only partially subside when Germany ended the South Korean dream with a 1-0 win in the Semi’s

Moreno would later be investigated and banned from the game due to questionable decisions in the Ecuadorian league. Confirming to many that he, and Ghandour, was responsible for some sort of FIFA-orchestrated stitch-up. Despite the allegations, no proof has ever emerged, and it appears more likely that the refs simply buckled under the intense pressure of the home support. Either way, South Korea and the Red Devils deserve a lot of credit for the spirited performances and atmospheres that they brought to the 2002 World Cup. 

What’s your view on South Korea’s 2002 World Cup journey? Get your thoughts in the comments below!

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