How The 2002 World Cup Became The Most Controversial Tournament in Recent Memory
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How The 2002 World Cup Became The Most Controversial Tournament in Recent Memory

The 2002 World Cup is remembered as the tournament of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo. However, thanks to referees, the golden goal rule and South Korea, it is also considered one of the most contentious of all time.

The 2002 World Cup should by rights be remembered as the tournament of the underdog. Senegal beat holders France in the group stage before dumping out Sweden in the Round of 16; Turkey advanced to the semi-finals before losing by a single goal to Brazil; and host nation South Korea went on a run which included knockout triumphs over Italy and Spain. The final in Yokohama may have ended up as a straight fight between Germany and the Seleção, but it was the upsets of the previous rounds which sent reverberations around the globe.


Meanwhile, the individual stars of the tournament were an iconic trio of attackers in yellow, with Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo dancing through opposition defences with impossible grace on their way to victory. Still, ask people about the most memorable moments of the 2002 World Cup, and the majority would probably overlook the eight goals scored by Ronaldo, and even Ronaldinho's famous lob over David Seaman. Instead, they would most likely recall the tournament's great controversies, the worst of which were down to the politics of FIFA, the golden goal rule and incendiary referees.

The first contentious decision of the tournament would take place six years before it had even begun, when Japan and South Korea were selected as joint hosts in the summer of 1996. Having initially presented rival bids for the competition, it was the first (and, to date, last) time that two nations would share hosting duties for the World Cup, with neither country having the infrastructure required to go it alone. The fact that Japan had never qualified for the World Cup at the time of bidding raised numerous eyebrows, as did the obvious logistical issues for fans travelling across the seas between venues. Meanwhile, the time difference meant that European fans would have to watch their matches in the morning, disturbing the working day for millions of viewers. As the first World Cup to be staged in Asia, many accused FIFA of putting political expedience over supporter convenience, with questions over the football culture in South Korea and Japan almost as persistent as they are now with regards to Qatar.


READ MORE: The Tragedy of David Seaman Getting Lobbed By Ronaldinho at the 2002 World Cup

These complaints could be dismissed as Eurocentric snobbery, of course, and FIFA were never going to be deterred from exploiting new markets by the grumbling from football's anciens régimes. In the end, fan culture in South Korea came as a pleasant surprise to many, even if there was less enthusiasm in Japan after the Samurai Blue were knocked out by Turkey in the Round of 16. Under the professorial management of Guus Hiddink, the Koreans far outdid their rival co-hosts, whipping up a storm of World Cup mania from Gwangju to Ulsan, Daegu to Seoul. Storm metaphors were popular at the time given that the World Cup took place in the monsoon season – another major gripe ahead of the tournament which dissipated as things got underway – but also because of the thunderous criticism which came about as a result of South Korea's success.

The group stage went by with relatively little incident for the Koreans, who notched convincing wins over Portugal and Poland as well as a 1-1 draw with the United States. There was considerable kvetching from the Portuguese after both Beto and Joao Pinto were sent off in their match, but in truth the Red Devils had deserved the win and went on to top the group fair and square. Where the fairness of proceedings came into question was in their Round of 16 clash with Italy in Daejeon, which they won 2-1 after striker Ahn Jung-hwan headed a golden goal past Gianluigi Buffon three minutes before the game went to penalties. Italy had been underwhelming all tournament despite boasting the talents of Maldini, Cannavaro, Totti, Nesta, Inzaghi, Materazzi, Vieri and the like, but the manner of their defeat left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans and the establishment back home.


A sad fan sits slumped on the Piazza Trieste e Trento after Italy's loss // EPA Images / Ciro Fusco

Hiddink set South Korea up in an aggressive 3-4-3 formation, and their energetic high press caused the Azzurri serious problems from the off. Though Christian Vieri scored the opener for Italy near to the 20-minute mark, their supporters became increasingly agitated by what they perceived to be a steady flow of unpunished fouls. As it was, Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno allowed the Koreans to continue their robust pressing game with near impunity, and their tactics paid dividends. They hustled the Italians into conceding a goal late on, before Ahn Jung-hwan came up with his decisive intervention in extra time. In the meantime, the Italians fell victim to an unbelievable litany of refereeing errors. Francesco Totti was harshly sent off for diving; Damiano Tommasi had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside; Choi Jin-cheul two-footed Gianluca Zambrotta and Kim Tae-young threw an elbow at Alessandro del Piero without consequence, even if the Italians were less than blameless in the rough and tumble of the game.

Back in Italy, many refused to recognise that South Korea had won the match, while in an act of petty vengeance Jung-hwan had his loan cancelled at Serie A side Perugia. The headlines were suitably Biblical, while legendary sports journalist and commentator Giorgio Tosatti wrote in Corriere della Sera: "Italy have been thrown out of a dirty World Cup where referees and linesmen are used as hitmen." Conspiracy theories began to swirl around the ref, and Moreno was later investigated by FIFA on account of "a number of controversies." At the time, however, Sepp Blatter insisted that the mistakes had been down to "human not premeditated errors." The prevailing opinion in Italy was that the match had been manipulated so as to keep the host nation in the tournament, and that FIFA's grand ambitions in Asia had been prioritised over the integrity of the result.

When South Korea knocked out Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals, the fury of the European media was multiplied tenfold. This time Egyptian referee Gamal Al-Ghandour was at the heart of the controversy, having disallowed two perfectly good goals as – over on the sidelines – Spain coach José Antonio Camacho anxiously secreted two of the biggest sweat patches football has ever seen. Raging in the pages of The Telegraph, Paul Hayward wrote: "The records say that the Koreans knocked out Spain in a penalty shoot-out in Gwangju on Saturday. The records are a lie and this tournament has descended into farce." He also railed against the internal politics of referee selection, calling FIFA's decision to appoint officials from minor footballing nations "anti-meritocratic." The Spanish press were even less forgiving, and much like their Italian counterparts immediately and vociferously cried foul.

South Korea celebrate their win over Spain // PA Images

Had South Korea downed Germany in the semis there may well have been riots, at least outside the headquarters of Europe's major newspapers. Instead, they were finally knocked out by a single goal from Michael Ballack, bringing their unlikely World Cup run to an end. The host nation were treated like heroes on the Korean peninsular, with even the chairman of North Korea's football association, Ri Kwang-gun, sending public congratulations to his nation's bitter enemies. In both Italy and Spain, there are still sporadic outbursts of anger over the perceived injustices of that World Cup, with the FIFA corruption scandal of 2015 only strengthening suspicions that the matches were influenced by politicking from football's world governing body. Nonetheless, those matches are remembered with great fondness in South Korea, where no amount of European moaning can take the shine off their greatest ever World Cup campaign.