Back in the mid-nineties a huge war was being waged in the Far East. Luckily, real weapons were not used, but the confrontation was extremely passionate regardless. The right to host the first World Cup outside of Europe and the Americas was at stake, and the two nations on the forefront of Asian football – South Korea and Japan – were very interested.
Rather than encouraging the feud, FIFA decided to split the honour (and responsibility), awarding the hosting rights to two countries for the first time. Initially the idea was received badly on both sides of the Sea of Japan, but it worked out in the end, especially for the Koreans, who managed the creation of the necessary infrastructure better.
Even though one of the earliest forms of football was invented in China, Korea was for a longtime considered the cradle of football in Asia. Only a year after the end of the war that led to the separation of the peninsula, the South Koreans made their debut at the World Cup, in Switzerland. Even though they conceded 16 goals against Turkey and the best team in the world at that point, Hungary, it was valuable lesson, which helped the Taegeuk Warriors win the first two Asian Football Confederation Asian Cups in 1956 and 1960.
Over the next quarter of a century the team from the South became very competitive, but they could neither put their hands on the trophy, nor earn a place at the World Cup. But in 1966 it was North Korea who sent shockwaves around the globe, beating Italy and leading 3-0 against the mighty Portugal, before succumbing to the Eusebio-led team by five goals to three.
Ever since 1986, South Korea has been a constant fixture on the global scene, qualifying for each of the past eight World Cups.
Even though they failed to progress from the group (or win a single game) in their first four attempts, the Koreans were by no means pushovers, managing to draw four of 12 games and score 11 goals in the process.
Their closest but also bitterest rivals are situated across the sea, in Japan. Historically, the Blue Samurais’ best moments came at the Olympic tournaments, especially in 1968, when they won the bronze in Mexico City. But before that Japan and Korea’s ventures at the Olympics were somewhat controversial – in 1936, when the whole Korean peninsula was a part of the Empire of Japan, a common team was selected to travel to Berlin. For the first time Koreans were part of the Japanese team and their success was instant, as they beat Sweden 3-2, after trailing by two goals at half time.
In Japan football has been the third sport, by some distance, behind sumo and baseball, and for a long time it was considered acceptable to lose to South Korea:
“We beat them at baseball, they beat us at soccer”, said Japanese journalist Ijiri Casuo in the early nineties.
After all, even today South Korea has three times as many head-to-head wins to their name.
But those were the very days the things were about to change. In 1992 Japan took advantage of the Koreans shock qualifying defeat to Thailand, and managed to win the AFC Asian Cup at home. A year later they famously beat their bitter rivals in a World Cup qualifier. Just two years after learning they would host a World Cup, the Japanese finally managed to earn their right to play at one. They did lose all the games, but that was just beginning.
After guest starring at the 1999 Copa America, where they managed to draw with Bolivia, it was at the 2000 Asian Cup that the Samurai truly came into their own. Shigeyoshi Mochizuki scored the only goal in the final win over Saudi Arabia, but Japan scored 21 goals in total and beat the Saudis 4-1 earlier on.
From then on Japan became the dominant force in Asia. In five Asian Cups since 2000 they lost only a single game (2-3 vs Saudi Arabia in 2007), winning on three occasions. They would play at three Confederation Cups, winning at least one game at each. In 2001 they even reached the finals, after beating Cameroon, Canada and Australia and drawing with Brazil. The only goal they conceded at the tournament was the one scored by Patrick Vieira, which won the tournament for France.
The 1936 Olympics represents the key date in Korea’s sporting history. Two of their marathon runners won medals for the Japanese team in Berlin, but the sense of national pride was awakened.
Their great writer Shim Hoon dedicated a famous quote to the Olympic winner Son Kee-chung: ‘Will you, everyone around the world, still call us a weak bunch now?’
The message was well understood by the Korean players ahead of the 2002 tournament and the fanaticism they displayed during the World Cup was unmatched. They received enormous help from their supporters and the nation as a whole, as the team’s efforts at the World Cup was by far the most important aspect of Korean public life during that summer.
Over in Japan the people were not nearly as involved. In the stands and during the games the Blue Samurai received a lot of support, but as soon as the games were over there was not the same World Cup frenzy to be felt, partly because most of the stadia were built far from the city centres.
Both co-hosts both hired European coaches, Philippe Troussier for Japan and Guus Hiddink for Korea. Even though both teams were, as hosts, drawn from the first pot and there were clear signs of progress, they were by no means favourites to progress from their groups. Each had to face two European sides, and those games proved to be crucial. South Korea beat Poland in their first game, closely followed by Japan’s triumph over Russia.
That game was won by a single goal from a young Junichi Inamoto, who had spent the previous season on loan in London, at the double-winning Arsenal. Ironically, the French team boasting most of Arsenal’s key players, and holders of the World, European and Confederations Cup titles, failed to score a single goal and were out of the tournament the very next day.
One day after that it was the Koreans’ turn to shine, and they did it in style. They beat the star-studded Portuguese team 1-0, knocking them out of the World Cup. The scorer was another player who would end up in England, where he would leave a considerably deeper mark and torment Arsenal for years – Park Ji-sung.
Thus both nations could rejoice after winning their respective groups, since their teams continued the tradition – all the World Cup hosts had managed to get to the second round until then. The first home side to fail to do so would be South Africa, eight years later. Japan had the easier route of the two, facing Turkey, while the Koreans were pitted against the mighty Italians.
Both teams were scheduled to play their Round of 16 games on the last day,18th June, so by then they knew what lay ahead – for Blue Samurai a win would lead to a winnable game against the debutants from Senegal, while South Korea’s next step would be just as hard as their previous game, after Spain survived two missed penalties in a shootout with Ireland.
In Miyagi, Japan was down to Umit Davala’s goal within twelve minutes and they never managed to come back. Their dream was over and soon they were back to their usual lives.
Over in Daejeon, a brave team was not ready to give up hope in face of adversity. Christian Vieri gave Italy the lead in 18th minute, but in a bad tempered game there was always hope that Hiddink’s team would equalise and it finally happened two minutes from time, courtesy of Seol Ki-Hyeon (the Wolves, Reading and Fulham player), forcing extra-time.
Then came the moment that would stay in Italian minds for a long time. Just as the first half of extra-time was about to finish Francesco Totti entered the Korean penalty-box. As soon as Song Chong-gug made a tackle, the Roma captain tumbled to the ground. The Ecuadorian ref Byron Moreno ran over to them and showed Totti a yellow card. Since he had already been booked for elbowing, Totti was off. The debate about that moment raged for weeks and many Italians still feel they were robbed. The only certain thing is that Song’s tackle was clean – he got to the ball first. There was some contact with Totti afterwards, but it is debatable whether it was enough to bring him down.
That was not to be the end of the controversy. Within a minute Damiano Thomasi was wrongly flagged for offside when clean through on goal. Then came the killer blow. Three minutes from time Lee Yong-Pyo’s cross into the Italian box was met by Ahn Jung-Hwan and the game was over. Ahn was a Perugia player at the time, but the controversial club owner Luciano Gaucci cancelled his contract the next day, saying:
“I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football”.
The Italian supporters sent over 400,000 e-mails to FIFA, calling it a fraud, and within four days they would be joined by the Spanish. The future rulers of the world football were not as strong at the time, but their Gwangju game with South Korea was packed with controversy. The Europeans were denied two seemingly good goals, once by the ref from Egypt, the other time by a Trinidadian linesman.
No other goals were scored, so it was time for Lee Won-jae to shine in goal. He saved Joaquin’s attempt, allowing the captain Hong Myun-bo to score the winner. The Taeguk Warriors thus survived extra-time with two European super powers and for the first time since 1930 a nation that belonged to neither UEFA nor CONMEBOL reached the semi-finals.
A single Michael Ballack goal in Seoul was enough to give the Germans their seventh World Cup final appearance. South Korea was to play for the 3rd place against the Turkish team, which provided some shocks along the way as well. Within 11 seconds Hakan Sukur put the Turks ahead, scoring the fastest ever World Cup goal.
Turkey went on to win the game 3-2, but the tournament was a huge success for South Korea, and a reasonable one for Japan.
Guus Hiddink is still considered a national hero in Korea, where he was offered honorary citizenship (which he declined).
The following decade saw further success by the Japanese team, both in Asia and at the 2010 World Cup, when they managed to knock out Denmark and Cameroon and reach the second round once more. The South Koreans, on the other hand, kept their foot in the door, but only in 2015 did they come close to true success, in the form of a place at the Asian Cup finals.
The two hosts took advantage of playing on home soil in 2002, but Asian football as a whole hasn’t yet made enough strides to narrow the gap with Europe and South America. Still, some recent events provide hope of progress. In 2006 Australia was transferred from the Oceania Football Confederation to the AFC, potentially helping to improve the standard of competition; the Australians have made it to three consecutive World Cups and won the Asian Cup on their soil. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been consistently strong in Asia, but the expected emergence of China is a potential game changer.