Made in Korea: Asian inspiration for World Cups to come

South Korea 2002 FIFA World Cup

By Brian Tamayao

No Asian team has yet to win the World Cup, but it does not mean that the representatives of the world’s largest continent don’t have their fair share of success in the biggest global football tournament.

In fact, two countries have made their mark in the World Cup by becoming the only teams so far who have made it at least to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Interestingly, those two teams share not only that distinction as they also share one of the world’s most popular borders – the notorious 38th degree parallel. Yes, the two teams are North Korea and South Korea.

Indeed, the Koreans have done the Asian Football Confederation proud. Going into the tournament with modest expectations and little fanfare beyond their territories, they showed everyone else what they are capable of.

‘The North Remembers’

First in pushing the envelope was North Korea back in 1966. The only qualifier out of the Asian region, North Korea almost was not allowed to play in England because the United Kingdom did not recognize the republic from the north of the Korean border. Fortunately for them, the world governing body of football FIFA did not tolerate the host country’s politics to interfere with the staging of the event. Like all qualified teams, North Korea competed for the coveted Jules Rimet trophy.

North Korea 1966 World Cup Squad

At that point, the North Koreans were not seriously considered to lift the trophy at the end of the tournament. After all, previous Asian entrants Indonesia and South Korea were hammered by superior opposition and when the North Koreans stumbled against a much stronger Soviet Union team en route to a 3-0 loss, it looked like the trend will only continue.

Luckily, their tournament didn’t end after the game against the Soviets. In the next game, they managed to hold Chile into a 1-1 draw through a late equalizer scored by skipper Pak Seung Jin. It became a launching pad to a North Korean missile that struck a much larger target three days later.

Playing against the Italians, who have won two World Cups at the time, was a daunting task for any minnows in the tournament. The Chollima, as they are fondly known, did not turn out to be one of them. Through a single goal tallied by Pak Doo Ik, the North Koreans pulled the rug off the much-fancied Italy team to set up a duel against Eusebio and his Portugal teammates.

The lone representative of Asia in the 1966 World Cup started the quarterfinal tie in style, taking a 3-0 lead in the first 25 minutes. Yet it was far from over and if there was a team that could storm their way back from such a big deficit, it was the Portuguese. Putting in a remarkable performance even by his standards, Eusebio scored four of his team’s five goals to turn the game right on its head. After 90 minutes, Portugal eliminated North Korea, 5-3.

The North Koreans may have not made it past Portugal but they held the best finish ever by an Asian country in the tournament for 36 long years. It stood until their neighbors, South Korea, did one better in the first World Cup of the 21st century.

‘No Place Like Home’

As co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup with Japan, South Korea went to the tournament without the need to qualify for it. The Taeguk Warriors were grouped with Portugal, the United States, and Poland in a tricky group for the hosts. Their first game came against the Poles whom they defeated 2-0 to get their bid for a knockout round spot going. South Korea then salvaged a point against the United States when Ahn Jung Hwan cancelled a first half Clint Mathis goal to put them in a good position to qualify.

Tied with the USA in first place after two match days, South Korea either needed to do better than the Americans who were up against the already eliminated Poland side or secure at least a point against pre-tournament favourites Portugal. The Portuguese, who had the likes of Rui Costa and Luis Figo in their squad, suffered a 3-2 defeat to the US before bouncing back with a 4-0 demolition of Poland. At that moment, it was going to be the biggest 90 minutes of South Korea’s footballing history.

South Korea 2002 World Cup

As the final games of the group happen at the same time, word about the other game can spread somehow into another and if it was the case at the time, then there may have been a few people in the Portugal-South Korea match who knew that a draw would have been enough to take both teams through to the next round. That’s because the US trailed early to Poland and were eventually beaten 3-1. A draw against Portugal would have kept South Korea on top with the European giants coming in second.

Yet the Taeguk Warriors were not having any of it and were willing to put on a show not just in front of their fans but also the entire world. Portugal, on their part, did not make things easy for themselves as they eventually found themselves reduced to nine men within 65 minutes. It proved costly when Park Ji Sung gave the Koreans the lead for good just five minutes later. The hosts held on not just to knock out Portugal but top a group not a lot of people thought they’d even make it out of.

Thus, the giant slaying began for South Korea. Not content in just eliminating Portugal, they also booted out an incredibly talented Italy squad in an exhilarating encounter through an extra time effort netted by Ahn. Afterwards, they weathered the Spanish Armada to force a penalty shootout where goalkeeper Lee Woon Jae denied Joaquin from the spot – the only missed attempt – and send South Korea to the semifinals.

Eventually, the Koreans fell to Germany who advanced courtesy of a late Michael Ballack goal. They may have not reached the final of the competition yet they couldn’t feel more prouder as they became the best ever performing Asian representative in the World Cup up to this day. They also conceded the tournament’s fastest ever goal in the subsequent third-place match which they lost against Turkey. However, even that can’t dent the legacy of the 2002 class of Taeguk Warriors. They haven’t missed the World Cup since and each time, the attempt of at least matching the feat in 2002 remain filled with hope.

As the 2018 World Cup in Russia looms large, five AFC representatives – including South Korea themselves – will look for these two teams for inspiration. Not even poised to qualify for the knockout rounds, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia and the Taeguk Warriors will always have the memories of the great 1966 and 2002 Korean teams from both sides of the border to spur them on as they plot to make a wave made in Asia once again.