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How to Love South Korea’s 2002 World Cup Run (Again)

On Tuesday, South Korean national soccer player Cha Du-Ri retired from international duty, and with that, the last of the hallowed 2002 World Cup squad played his last match for the country. It’s an end of an era in Korean football, and one for me personally.

I probably would not be writing this had it not been for South Korea reaching the semifinals in their home turf. The 2002 World Cup was the moment I discovered sports, and that I loved watching and talking about sports. Every sports fan loves a good Cinderella story at homecoming, and in my 10-year old eye, South Korea was the miracle team on grass turf.

And yet, when people bring up South Korea’s Cinderella run now (if at all), there is an air of disdain, a bite of dishonor toward the topic. They will say the tournament was corrupted and spoiled by the referees who gave South Korea exceedingly generous calls, an allegation which is neatly compiled in the video below.

This is now the mainstream narrative — at least in the West — toward South Korea’s semifinals run. This was the Zapruder film exposing a supposedly undeserved team going through to the final four thanks to bribery. As a Korean-American, the theory always stung deeply because I was so attached to this team.

I now watch soccer on a near-religious basis, and I think I know the sport better than I did in 2002. Revisiting the three matches in question again, I can honestly say I don’t see a scandal to be unearthed in South Korea reaching the semis. Was there bad refereeing? Absolutely. I will go as far as to say the refereeing in the quarterfinals against Spain was unjustifiably bad.

But undeserved? Hell no. In all three matches, South Korea showed they can play with the big boys, and beat them too. They were not the minnows they were portrayed across Western media before and after the tournament.

I wanted to focus on three aspects on how South Korea reached the semifinals — without help from the referees: the Korean defensive line, the tactical genius of manager Guus Hiddink, and the missed chances and dirty play from the three European nations.

Defense wins matches, and South Korea in 2002 played a balanced 3-4-3 formation to highlight their strength in the backline. South Korea had three of its best defenders in its history play at the same time.

Hong Myung-Bo was the captain and played the now-virtually-extinct sweeper role, a role that allowed defenders to roam and attack when he thought appropriate. With an able goalkeeper in Lee Woon-Jae and defensive midfielder Kim Nam-Il in front of the backline, Hiddink had a formidable defensive spine. It is no coincidence South Korea conceded only three goals in its first six matches.

Hiddink took what was on paper a middling group of players and turned them into a physically intimidating team. Hiddink’s focus on stamina and pace left Italian reporters asking for a blood doping test of Korean players after the Italy match. While the Koreans lacked the technical touch of Luis Figo or Francesco Totti, they made up for it in energy.

Having fit players gave Hiddink weapons to close down more talented footballers. Against Portugal, Hiddink placed a 23-year old unknown named Song Chong-Gug to mark Luis Figo, one of the top 10 footballers at the time. It was a stroke of genius as Song locked Figo for 90 minutes in the 1-0 victory.

But the first two factors could not have wholly resulted in upset victories for South Korea without mistakes from the other side. People who villainized South Korea forget to mention the numerous mistakes and dirty play the three sides each made that cost them the game:

  1. Portugal’s Joao Pinto’s red card in the 26th minute was a straight red, no question. It was a scissor tackle, and young Park Ji-Sung could have been seriously hurt.
  2. Beto’s second yellow card in the 66th minute came, I believe, because he slightly pushed the referee after the tackle. It’s a boneheaded move for a guy already on the books. Portugal now had to play with only nine men.
  3. All the missed chances from the Italians, from Damiano Tommassi’s miss or Christian Vieri’s “miss of the tournament”. If they finished these basic chances, there would be no need to whine and complain about the loss.
  4. Both Totti’s yellow cards were justified. Totti elbowed a player in the face for the first yellow card. Totti took a dive on the second yellow card. No question.
  5. Two can play the “‘Team X plays dirty and should not advance’ video with dramatic music” game.
  6. I got nothing much for Spain. Two Spanish goals were unjustifiably disallowed. Thank goodness Joaquin missed the lone penalty to send South Korea to the semis, I guess.

I was 13 years old when I first watched the video and heard the conspiracy theories. It was a “Santa doesn’t exist” kind of a moment. That Korean team was my personal idol. It took me until I was 20 to re-watch all the games again, and examine it for myself.

A lot of Koreans I know have bought into the bribery theory, and all its false guilt, disowning the squad. It’s a damn shame when Korean-Americans can’t embrace the glory we all shared (yes, every last one of us) in the summer of ‘02 without feeling at least a tinge of retroactive embarrassment.

Of all the nations ever to make a World Cup semifinal, the 2002 South Korean team might have been the least well known or talented. But the prevailing opinion that the South Korean side was borderline amateur scrubs who needed a 12th man to win is the stuff of petty conspiracy theorists. This wasn’t Bhutan on the come up. South Korea deserved to be there, and more importantly, that’s how it goes down in the record books. Put it to bed.

Cover photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.

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