South Korea 2002 and birthday cake for breakfast

It was my first World Cup. I’ll remember the Fevernova (the golden ball that a friend and I nearly ruined in his backyard), South Korean players celebrating, David Seaman’s tears, and having the final score ruined for me and my dad.

I had no idea of the importance: in both the emerging Asian markets which FIFA was hoping to exploit, or the historical significance of a dual-host.

My family is English, so I was duty-bound to follow England throughout the tournament. The whole ordeal kicked off shortly after my 11th birthday and stretched in to school summer holidays.

England’s first game was watched from the comfort of my living room couch (alongside my dad) early in the morning, choosing to eat leftover birthday cake for our breakfast.

It was a drab affair – a 1-1 draw with Sweden courtesy of a Sol Campbell goal – but it was a start.

England then faced off against Argentina in their Group F match. Michael Owen may have made his mark in France ’98, but he came to the fore in the 2002 World Cup. He was at the heart of England’s goals, with manager Sven-Göran Eriksson relying on his speed and his partnership with Liverpool strike partner Emile Heskey.

Owen rattled the post in the opening minutes of the Argentina match, stretching their backline with the explosive speed that would eventually leave his legs as his career went on.

It was Owen who earned the goal. Now-Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino hacked him down in the box, setting up David Beckham for the full circle of redemption. Four years on from his kick-out against Diego Simeone, Beckham (fauxhawk and all) buried the penalty.

But England wasn’t the only team catching my eye.

South Korea – the underdog hosts – racked up a series of impressive results against much more formidable opposition.

It was a Korean team built of all-stars: a young Park Ji-Sung patrolled the wing as a right-forward on a front three, while Korean goalschoring machine Hwang Sun-hong (he scored a goal roughly once every two games) led the line.

Hong Myung-bo — considered one of the greatest Asian footballers of all time for his performances as a sweeper with Pohang Steelers and appearances in four World Cups — took part in his final tournament.

Buttressed by perennial partners Choi Jin-cheul and Kim Tae-young, the trio formed a solid defensive partnership, helping  the Taegeuk Warriors sweep past Poland and Portgual.

Their round-of-16 match against Italy is one that continues to live on in infamy.

Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno was either a stickler for rules or a cheat – depending on the fans you talked to. For me, seeing a traditional power knocked out by the hometown team buoyed by their fans was a beautiful thing to see.

Italy had one of the greatest teams they’ve ever assembled: Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri, and Paolo Maldini all graced the field that match, and all were left distraught.

The match featured a missed penalty, a red card, controversial callbacks, and a golden goal. You watch the goal and you can see how much it meant to the fans.

The ball floats in from the 30 yards out, and Ahn Jung-Hwan rises highest. The ball touches the top of his shaggy mane of hair and falls into the corner beyond a falling Gianluigi Buffon.

Korean friends at school were jubilant (one painted his cheeks with the Korean flag that day).

When I went to university, an Italian friend said that match was possibly the only time he had ever heard his grandfather swear in English.

As the tournament progressed, South Korea kept stunning watchers with their results. In the later quarter-final match, Myung-bo scored the winning penalty to send South Korea through to the semifinals. His performances earned him recognition as the first Asian player to be named by the Technical Study Group as one of the top players of the tournament.

It might be the passage of time, but there seemed to be more controversy than following tournaments. Roy Keane falling out with Mick McCarthy (and Ireland), Italy’s elimination, and controversially dismissed goals (again benefiting South Korea).

The 2002 World Cup was also the redemption year for Brazil. After a near-miss in 1998, Brazil was back to their free-flowing best. An experienced Rivaldo supported Ronaldo, while Roberto Carlos bombed down the wing. You look at that squad and it’s a who’s who of players in their prime. Bayern Munich and Juventus stalwart Lucio was 24, Cafu a sprightly 31, Kaka just 20 and Ronaldinho only 22 and still plying his trade for Paris Saint-Germain.

They moved the ball with purpose and every pass seemed to be an attack forward, there was no Spanish tiki-taka for them.

Looking back, it was a nothing free kick. With the game tied at one apiece (thanks again to an Owen goal), Scholes hacked down Kléberson 35-40 yards away from goal. The commentators had no idea what was coming. You can see Seaman realizing at the last minute the ball is goal-bound. He backpedals, ponytail flapping in the air before it slips over his fingers and into the top corner.

Cue the final whistle tears from the Arsenal keeper.

In an era before PVR or digital recording, you were stuck with using a VCR to record a match. My dad and I avoided practically everyone that day so we could sit down and watch the World Cup final together.

We trooped back in from a bike ride to my eight-year-old sister gleefully telling us that Brazil had won. My dad dropped his head and walked back outside for a minute to compose himself.

It was my first-ever World Cup and exposed me to experiences that would become common themes: Brazil’s attacking flair, England’s surprising ability to shoot themselves in the foot and the relentless optimism of a fan.

Leave a Reply