Ahn Jung-Hwan: South Korea’s Controversial Hero

From Ronaldinho’s opinion-splitting free-kick and Rivaldo’s cowardly play-acting, to Turkey’s surprise run of form and Pierluigi Collina’s shiny, yet still largely intimidating bald head – the 2002 World Cup certainly failed to pass without its fair share of drama.

But like all major international competitions seeking to permanently carve themselves within the annals of footballing history, this particular tournament also included more than enough hard-nosed controversy to keep us fun-loving football fans well and truly engaged.

In little ol’ South Korea – the successful co-hosts of the competition alongside Japan – the 2002 World Cup was arguably met with its most contentious outfit. They were ready and willing to take the world by storm that summer, with the vastly experienced Guus Hiddink working his magic down among the South Korean touchline.

Hiddink’s team of so-called minnows included both Anderlecht’s Seol Ki-Hyeon and a young Park Ji-Sung just three years prior to making his grand entrance at Old Trafford, but it was Ahn Jung Hwan – a seemingly little known attacking midfielder plying his trade amid the Italian top-flight – who ultimately stole the show for those buoyant South Koreans.

His is a tale of great potential and mounting stardom, with the odd dash of dodgy officiating, possible match-fixing and many heartbroken Italian football fans thrown in for good measure…

Nicknamed the undisputed Lord of the Ring, thanks to the midfielder constantly kissing his wedding-ring upon each and every goal celebration, Ahn Jung Hwan earned himself a prestigious loan switch to Perugia after displaying some impressive goal-scoring form amid his native homeland of South Korea.

The up and coming Asian superstar arrived in the wake of Hidetoshi Nakata’s departure from the central Italian club. South Korean football fans were hoping to see their home-grown talent surpass the impact of Japan’s arguably greatest ever export, but life among the European game was to prove tough and unforgiving for Ahn Jung Hwan.

The promising South Korean was failing to deliver upon his early potential. By the time the 2002 World Cup was approaching for the on-loan Perugia man, many felt Guus Hiddink had all but decided on casting his former talisman aside in light of a young, eager alternative…

But thankfully for South Korea – and rather unfortunately for those notoriously bitter Italians – Hiddink decided to show a little faith in the once highly revered goal-scorer. It would be a decision that would live on in infamy, for the 2002 World Cup would provide the perfect stage for which Ahn Jung Hwan could thrive in abundance.

The attacking-midfielder struck an immediate chord with his fellow South Koreans. He seemed hungrier, more determined than ever to really make something happen, and ready to spur his team forward with the captain’s armband strapped proudly to his body.

Ahn Jung-Hwan successfully registered himself on the score-sheet with a well-taken finish against the USA, but it was his antics amid those all-important knock-out stages that ultimately brought about a new wave of notoriety for those decisive South Koreans.

After successfully traversing the often turbulent group-stages and triumphantly booking their place among the knock-out phases of the competition, South Korea saw themselves come up against a fierce Italian outfit led by Giovanni Trapattoni among the round of 16.

Italy took a well-deserved early lead courtesy of Christian Vieri, but the South Koreans weren’t giving up just yet. Slowly but surely, the designated match official seemed to be leaning favourably upon the host-nation, offering South Korea numerous soft free-kicks just outside the box, as well as an equally questionable penalty early in the first-half.

The spot-kick was incidentally missed by none other than Ahn Jung-Hwan himself, yet the controversy certainly didn’t end there. Whilst the Italians were nonetheless guilty of spurning their fair share of chances, referee – Byron Moreno – seemingly grew more and more intent on helping the determined South Koreans find their way back into the match.

Amid a further flurry of questionable decisions that left Italian onlookers shaking with fury, South Korea finally found the back of the net with just a few minutes left to spare. The game was to be decided by golden-goal – and whilst Italy found themselves somewhat hard done by in the wake of such a peculiar performance – Giovanni Trapattoni’s side remained in full confidence.

But yet again, South Korea were more than ready to spoil the party – and this time the goal came courtesy of an extremely well-taken header by, that’s right you guessed it: Ahn Jung Hwan!

The stadium erupted with the ecstasy of jubilant home fans. Italy were left fuming after witnessing an inevitable goal cancelled out for a false off-side call, whilst Trapattoni tried in vain to shake some much-needed sense into the nearby match-officials.

It was a game that few could forget. Although South Korea would go on to experience yet another enthralling victory against Spain in equally suspicious circumstances, it was Ahn Jung Hwan’s sublimely taken header against the Italians that ultimately changed the midfielder’s life forever, but not necessarily for the good…

“He was a phenomenon only when he played against Italy. I am a nationalist and I regard such behaviour not only as an affront to Italian pride but also an offence to a country which two years ago opened its doors to him.”

Luciano Gaucci, former President of Perugia Calcio

The South Korean hot-shot was subsequently cast aside by Perugia, destined to never set foot among the Italian game again. Fans of the proud Azzurri felt somewhat betrayed by what had taken place – for in the wake of one of the most scandalous World Cup performances to date – referee, Byron Moreno, was eventually accused of match-fixing and later arrested for attempting to smuggle heroin into the United States.

Ahn Jung Hwan would venture back to the far-East where his fortunes seemingly failed to improve. Despite finally returning to Europe with both FC Metz and MSV Duisburg, the former South Korean favourite would never again reach those lofty heights that took him all the way to World Cup stardom.

The once-esteemed national hero eventually found himself replaced by a newfound Korean talisman in the shape of Park Ji Sung. The former PSV and Manchester United frontman would go on to excel in Europe and eclipse the achievements of his once widely admired predecessor, leaving Ahn Jung Hwan to question whether or not his experiences among the 2002 World Cup were really worth it in the end.

Sometimes life is cruel, sometimes it’s just plain baffling – but in the case of South Korea’s former footballing pin-up boy – sometimes scoring the goal to take your nation through to the quarter-finals of a World Cup tournament just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…