If one were to take a look at the results of the 2002 World Cup, one might applaud the South Korean underdogs of the tournaments for rising up to the occasion and advancing over heavy favorites. In reality, it’s one of the most controversial tournaments in the history of the World Cup.
The controversy started six years before the tournament began. Japan and South Korea were selected as joint hosts, which was the first (and last, to this date) that two nations would share hosting responsibilities. At the time, Japan hadn’t even qualified for a World Cup. There were also logistical issues that needed to addressed when traveling between matches. The reason for having joint hosts is because neither country had the infrastructure to accommodate the tournament alone. With the time zone change, European fans would have to watch their matches in the morning, which would raise problems for employers and people at work.
South Korea topped Group D with a convincing 2-0 win over Poland and a 1-0 win over Portugal, as well as a 1-1 tie with the United States. 50,000 South Korean came to watch the match in a sea of red. Both Beto and Joao Pinto were sent off for Portugal, but it was generally accepted that South Korea had topped the group fairly. Following the match, an estimated 1.5 million people celebrated on the streets of Seoul that lasted well past midnight.
South Korea would have to face Italy in the Round of 16. Despite having a team built around Italian legends Maldini, Cannavaro, Totti, Nesta, Inzaghi, Materazzi and Vieri, Italy had been underwhelming all tournament. This was the last tournament to use golden goal, and South Korea’s Ahn Jung-hwan scored with three minutes left in extra time to send South Korea into the Quarter-finals. Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno allowed South Korea to press and foul the Italians hard throughout the match. Francesco Totti received his second yellow card for simulation in the penalty box and was sent off, though after watching replays it certainly wasn’t a dive. Damiano Tommasi had a goal also wrongly disallowed for being offside. The Italian players were constantly being tackled hard, including a two-footed challenge on Zambrotta and an elbow on Alessandro del Piero, but no cards were shown to the South Koreans.
After the game, the Italians were livid. Ahn Jung-hwan, who had scored the winning goal, was playing for Perguia in the Serie A at the time and had his loan canceled. FIFA released a statement saying, “As a result of a number of controversies regarding referee Byron Moreno in Japan, Italy, and South America over the past few months, FIFA has decided to launch an investigation into the affair”.
The European media was even more enraged after South Korea knocked out Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals. This time, Egyptian referee Gamal Al-Gandhour wrongfully disallowed two-goals and had a litany of offside calls that greatly hindered the Spanish side. For the first goal, De Pedro floated a set piece free kick and came off of a South Korean’s defender and into the net but was disallowed. The second occurred two minutes into extra-time when the linesman flagged that the ball had gone out of play on the touchline though replays proved it had stayed in. The South Koreans converted all 5 of their penalty kicks and secured a spot in the semi-finals against Germany. Finally, the South Koreans went down to a lone goal by Michael Ballack.
In the South Korean peninsula, the players were treated like heroes. They even received an exemption from their compulsory military service to continue their training and prepare for the 2006 tournament. To my father, an incredibly patriotic South Korean soccer enthusiast, there was nothing wrong with the 2002 World Cup. While growing up, I had always been proud of the achievements of the players of my ethnic background and looked up to them as heroes. Now, after realizing the potential scandals surrounding the tournament, the semi-final result feels like an embarrassment. Although there was much to give credit for the South Korean players at the time, especially Park Ji-Sung who I hold dear to my heart, for fighting their hardest and playing to the last minute, I cannot bring myself to ignore the possibility of corruption in the 2002 World Cup. With rising stars in the Premier League and the Bundesliga, I hope that someday South Korea will advance to the semi-finals free from allegations of cheating.