Tuesday marked exactly 20 years since the opening of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, the global football festival that saw support for the Korean national team reach fever pitch across the country.
The Korean team that participated in the 2002 World Cup is still considered a hero today. One of the most famous members of this historic team, Ahn Jung-hwan scored the winning goal against Italy in a round of 16 clash that took Korea to the country’s first-ever quarter-finals .
Ahn also scored in Korea’s group stage match against the United States in 2002 and in a group stage match against Togo at the 2006 World Cup.
Those three goals make Ahn Korea the all-time top scorer in the World Cup, an honor he shares with Park Ji-sung and Son Heung-min.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the 2002 World Cup, the Korea Football Association is currently holding a “Football Week”. Getting into the spirit of things, the JoongAng Ilbo sat down with Ahn to discuss his memories of the World Cup.
“2002 was the happiest period of my football career,” Ahn said. “It was also when I was most loved. I remember there were so many fans waiting that I couldn’t get out.”
After a difficult childhood, Ahn started playing football because players were given milk and bread to eat.
This difficult start did not hold Ahn back. He started his football career in 1998 with Busan I Park and then Busan Icons where he played 54 games and scored 27 points. He was named K League MVP in the 1999 season, scoring 14 goals and marking the first time a K League MVP was chosen from a club that was not top of the table.
In 2000, Ahn was loaned to Italian club AC Perugia and became the first Korean to play in Italy’s Serie A. Two years later, he was called up to the national football team by head coach Guus Hiddink.
“I hated losing,” Ahn recalled. “I also didn’t like comparing myself to others. Hiddink really brought out my abilities by challenging and motivating me. He told me personally that this World Cup was going to change my life, which it did. .”
In the round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup, Korea faced Italy, a team made up of some of the greatest players of the era like Christian Vieri, Francesco Totti and Paolo Maldini.
“I didn’t think we could beat Italy, who were a team of world stars,” Ahn said. “But I played for my life, and it worked. It’s football. It’s not football if the stronger team beats the weaker team all the time. That’s probably why the people are crazy about it.”
On the day of the match against Italy, Ahn ended up scoring the winning goal in extra time – until 2002 FIFA always followed the golden goal rule at World Cups – leading the Taeguk Warriors to an immediate 2-1 victory and a ticket to the quarter-finals. .
But that victory cost Ahn personally. He was reviled by Italian fans, with AC Perugia president Luciano Gaucci announcing that Ahn would be fired for insulting the Italian nation. Gaucci’s announcement, which would certainly have breached a host of FIFA regulations, turned out to be a publicity stunt as Ahn’s contract was terminated anyway, but he still remained persona non grata in Italy. .
“After the World Cup, my wife returned to Italy to find that someone had broken my Mercedes. The local newspaper even said that the mafia were threatening to kill me. It was almost as if I had ended my my entire football career with that one goal.”
After the 2002 World Cup, Ahn got the chance to play in the Premier League after signing a deal with Blackburn Rovers. Pérouse blocked the move, citing contractual obligations, and attempted to sabotage Ahn’s career by demanding $3.8 million in compensation from anyone who wanted to sign him.
Fortunately, a Japanese agency was willing to pay and Ahn landed at Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse from 2002 to 2003. Had he been allowed to move to Blackburn, he would have been the first Korean to play in the Premier League. Instead, that honor went to teammate and friend Park, who joined Manchester United in 2005.
“Yes, my life could have been different if I had played in the Premier League,” Ahn said after a long silence. “But a lot of people told me they were very happy because I was in the 2002 team. I always tell them, no, you made me happy. I think 3.8 million dollars is the price I paid for the respect and love I received from people.
“I am proud of Korean football. I can say that I gained a lot of things playing for Korea but also lost a lot of things. But of course there will be bad times, some of which I I’ll have to figure it out on my own. I can say that I gave my all for Korean football.
Ahead of the 2006 World Cup, Ahn was given the chance to join a La Liga club but opted to play for German side MSV Duisburg instead.
“The national team staff advised me to play in Germany in preparation for the 2006 World Cup,” Ahn said. “The salary was much smaller with fewer benefits, but I was able to lead Taeguk Warriors to our first away win by scoring against Togo. So, I have no regrets.
After three World Cups and 71 national team appearances, Ahn retired in 2012 and worked as a commentator and entertainer. During the Qatar 2022 World Cup draw in March, Ahn was filmed nervously waiting for the Group E draw, which included two strong contenders, Spain and Germany. Japan ended up in Group E while Korea landed in Group H alongside Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana.
“I was praying that Korea wouldn’t be placed in Group E,” Ahn said. “It’s more difficult to reach the round of 16 if the group is more competitive. Group H is obviously difficult but there is still hope.
The Qatar 2022 World Cup kicks off on November 21 in Doha, where Ahn will work as a commentator. Korea’s first game against Uruguay will be on November 24. Korea next face Ghana on November 28, before finishing the group stage with a game against Portugal on December 2.
BY PARK RIN, YUN SO-HYANG [[email protected]]