Asian World Cup Icons: The curious case of Ahn Jung-hwan

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

In the first of our series of Asian World Cup icons, “Same Same But Different: Your Asian Football Show” revisits the Ahn Jung-hwan controversy.

For most footballers, scoring at the FIFA World Cup would be a dream come true. Even more so if it comes against a mighty nation like four-time champions Italy.

But, for Korea Republic’s Ahn Jung-hwan, that dream turned into a nightmare back in 2002.

Co-hosting with Japan as Asia played hosts to the World Cup for the first time ever, the South Koreans rose to the occasion by finishing first in Group D following victories over Poland and Portugal, as well as a draw with United States.

The win over the Portuguese, in particular, was one of the greatest ever recorded by an Asian nation considering they were up against a star-studded opposition side, boasting the likes of Luis Figo, Sergio Conceicao and Pauleta.

Their prize for finishing top of their group?

A daunting Round of 16 clash against Italy, whose attack at the time was led by Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Christian Vieri.

The Taegeuk Warriors’ cause was helped by the fact that the Azzurri had Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta ruled out through suspension and injury respectively.

And Ahn looked to have spurned his chance for glory when his fifth-minute penalty was saved by Gianluigi Buffon, after Seol Ki-hyeon had been brought down inside the box by Christian Panucci.

The Italians made the most of that reprieve as Vieri headed home a Totti corner in the 19th minute, only for Seol to equalise with a minute remaining to force golden goal extra-time.

Totti was then controversially sent off by Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno, picking up a second yellow after being adjudged to have dived in search of a penalty.

Damiano Tomassi then had what would have been a winner for Italy disallowed for offside, and – with two minutes left before the penalty shootout – Ahn’s moment arrived.

A searching cross was sent into the box from the left and, amidst a sea of players, Ahn climbed highest to send a deft glancing header beyond Gianluigi Buffon’s despairing dive and into the bottom corner.

Ahn also scored for Korea Republic at the 2006 World Cup

Sure, for all the South Korean joy, there was equal amount of heartbreak for Italy, especially with the match littered with controversial decisions, but surely that would have been the end of the story?

Not quite, because Ahn was – at the time – playing for Italian club Perugia.

Almost immediately, Perugia tore up his loan contract with then chairman Luciano Gaucci astonishingly claiming: “That gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again.

“I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football.”

Ahn would go on to help Korea Republic on their famed run to a fourth-place finish at the 2002 World Cup, and taste further European football in France and Germany with Metz and Duisburg respectively.

On the other hand, Italy did go on to win a fourth World Cup four years later.

History suggests that both Ahn and Italy moved on from that debacle and ultimately did well for themselves.

Still, it does little to take away from what was truly The Curious Case of Ahn Jung-hwan 16 years ago.