The FIFA World Cup™ is the greatest show on earth for the simple reason that it pits the very best football teams in the world against each other. And at the greatest show on earth one team usually steps into the role of master showman. This year was no exception, but it was the identity of that team that took everyone by surprise: Gus Hiddink's swashbuckling Korea Republic side set the tournament alight with their own brand of free-flowing football, lightning-fast counter-attacks and never-say-die attitude. The dashing Koreans, cheered on by their whole country, made it all the way to the semi-finals, and were ultimately rewarded for their efforts with the trophy for the most entertaining team of the 2002 tournament.
61% of voters on FIFAworldcup.com plumped for the highly entertaining Asian side, confirming what most people had already been thinking. The supercharged men in red had been a breath of fresh air, whipping their passionate fans and indeed the whole nation into a frenzy. The Red Devils ran out worthy winners, way ahead of Turkey, another exciting outfit, who finished with 19 % of the vote.
Korea Republic's slick, one-touch football raised eyebrows right from their first match. The statistics are also telling: Gus Hiddink's men made more successful short passes than any other team in the tournament (2,348 compared to an average of 1,160); the Red Devils seemed to pick each other out telepathically. The Dutchman's insistence on bringing his squad together a month before the tournament began obviously proved invaluable in this respect.
Attack, attack, attack !
The Korean's refreshing high-octane, never-say-die approach to the game certainly made them a spectacular team to watch, and the fact that they managed to keep their foot on the pedal throughout the whole tournament bordered on the unbelievable. Just when you thought they must have run themselves into the ground - in the two games that went into extra-time for example - Hiddink's men found a second wind from somewhere, got their heads down and headed back into the breach. Fitness fanatics they may have been, but a team doesn't make it to the semi-final of the FIFA World Cup™ on fitness levels alone. The Koreans showed touches of sublime skill too; witness Seol Ki-Hyeon's volleyed goal against Poland, and Cha Du-Ri's overhead kick that brought a fine save from Gianluigi Buffon in the dying stages against Italy. Let there be no doubt about it; the Koreans allied outstanding technique with exceptional physical conditioning.
What really stood out in the Korean game plan, though, was their willingness to throw men forward, whatever the score. In front of their own fans they were transformed, joyously shrugging off the inferiority complex that had always held them back at previous FIFA World Cups. There were no signs of nerves this time around, as they dashed upfield at every opportunity, where, more often than not, they would try their luck from every conceivable angle and distance. One look at the tournament shooting table shows just how uninhibited they were, finishing in third place with 89 attempts on goal, just behind finalists Brazil (93) and Germany (100).
Despite their devil-may-care approach, the Koreans never quite managed to put their opponents to the sword. In fact, the Red Devils were embroiled in some of the most nail-biting encounters of the competition, right from their second match against the United States. The 'taeguk Warriors? seemed to take pleasure in torturing their fans by coming back from the dead. Against the States it was Ahn Jung Hwan who grabbed the leveller in the 78th minute. Park Ji Sung was the saviour against Portugal, his 70th minute equaliser taking his team through to the second round. What a game that was - and what a crazy last quarter, as nine desperate Portuguese tried to conjure up a winner against the cavalier Koreans who threatened to overwhelm them every time they got the ball.
The Red Devils take a Squadra scalp
If the Korean fans thought they couldn't take many more thrills, they were in for a shock in the second round; genuine heart-stopping excitement - and ultimately joy - awaited them against the mighty Italians. In the most amazing match of the competition, Ahn Jung Hwan missed an early penalty (5?) for the co-hosts, before Vieri struck for the Squadra Azzurra (18?). The Italians then sat back in inimitable style to protect their lead, and looked to have the game sewn up as the 90 minutes came and went. But this is football, and football is no respecter of stopwatches ? or tradition. Seol Ki Hyeon stole into the penalty area in injury time to bring Hiddink's heroes level and send the home fans into a state of collective hysteria. Yet there was still enough time for Italy to race up the other end, where the ball found its way to Vieri at the back post, 2 yards out with an open goal gaping. The giant Italian striker looked certain to extinguish the Korean celebrations. He couldn't possibly miss! Yet miss he did - somehow sending the ball high, wide and handsome - and the game went into extra-time, where both teams had great chances to win it, before Francesco Totti was given his marching orders. Then, finally, dramatically, just as the game appeared to be heading for a penalty shoot-out, Ahn Jung Hwan popped up ahead of Paolo Maldini to glance the ball into the corner of the Italian net (117). Hwan had done more than atone for his earlier penalty miss; he had sent his team into the quarter-finals with a golden-goal winner, and made himself a national hero in the blink of an eye.
Spain were next up, and although the overall standard of football in the quarter-final failed to quite live up to the Italian classic, the outcome was the same - a Korean victory against all the odds. The game had more than its fair share of excitement, including two disallowed Spanish goals, missed chances on both sides, and penalty-shoot drama. Incredibly, the Koreans were through to the semi-finals and a historic encounter with Germany, where they finally came unstuck, going down to a Michael Ballack goal despite a typically combative performance.
So, after such heroics, it was hardly surprising when the valiant Korea Republic, with their fantastic red tide of supporters, were overwhelmingly voted most entertaining team of the tournament by the readers of FIFAworldcup.com.