No. 20: South Korea’s Sensational Run (Japan & South Korea, 2002)
Being the host nation or city in any tournament can typically gives rise to a duo of far removed scenarios.
Some teams can crumble under the enormous pressure that accompanies this tag. The build-up, the fandom, the unrelenting intensity of proceedings can prove too much for some. But in the World Cup, typically, the host nations have thrived. Perhaps no better and no more unexpectedly than South Korea in 2002.
They hosted the first ever World Cup on Asian soil alongside Japan, and it was a tournament bristling with incredible supporter displays and some of the most remarkable modern stadia that the game had ever seen.
Of the two hosts, Japan were arguably the stronger side. But both excelled in their group stage games, roared on by fanatical support to win two and draw one of their opening three matches. But after the Japanese were knocked out of the tournament by Turkey in the last-16, the focus of the continent turned to South Korea.
When considering South Korea’s outstanding run, it’s worth remembering that Gus Hiddink’s team had not won a World Cup game prior to 2002. So to accumulate seven points from their opening three games was an achievement in itself.
But things were about to get better for the South Koreans. They faced an Italy team in the last-16 that was bursting with talent and experience, and when Christian Vieri gave the Azzurri the lead in the 18th minute of the game, the host nation’s dreams were hanging by a thread.
The underdogs rallied, though, with a late goal from Seol Ki-Hyeon sending the South Korean crowd into delirium and the tie into extra-time. Then, in the 117th minute, Ahn Jung-Hwan scored a golden goal to knock the Italians out and send his side through to the quarterfinals.
There they met Spain, and a tense 120 minutes yielded no goals, meaning a place in the last four would be up for grabs on penalties. The South Korean team held it together to score every single one of their five penalties, winning 5-3 and becoming the first team ever from outside Europe and the Americas to reach the semi-finals.
They would eventually lose to Germany in the last-four and again to Turkey in the playoff for third place. But this South Korean team had completed an historic sequence of results and had given the watching world a gripping underdog story.
Here are some of the best bits from that magnificent run:
What happened next?
To label this run as controversial would be a crass understatement and there was outrage from various corners of the globe at some atrocious refereeing that helped facilitate the Koreans progress in the tournament.
In the last-16 clash with Italy, a myriad of vital decisions went the way of Hiddink’s team. The hosts were awarded a controversial penalty in the opening five minutes that was subsequently missed by Ahn, but the peculiar decisions didn’t stop there.