Taeguk Warrior icons Ahn Junghwan and Park Jisung were officially unveiled on 18 May 2016 as the Local Organising Committee (LOC) Ambassadors for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017. That distinction aside, the pair have more than a few things in common. After they were called up to the senior team without having played for the national youth sides, they both performed superbly at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, helping the hosts to a historic fourth-place finish. Both Ahn and Park have also scored three goals in three World Cup appearances and are truly living legends of Korean football.
Fourteen years after the unforgettable memories of 2002, Ahn Junghwan has become a famous TV personality and commentator, while Park Jisung is set to embark on a new career in football administration. Now united once again in their desire for a successful U-20 World Cup, the pair spoke exclusively to FIFA.com and advised their young compatriots to enjoy the tournament and not be afraid to make mistakes.
FIFA.com: How important is the U-20 World Cup in the development of these players?
Ahn: The world’s finest youth players will come together for the event, so it’ll be an invaluable experience for them as they’re just starting out as professional footballers. It’s even more meaningful for the fans, as they get a chance to see first-hand the progress and future prospects of each participating country.
Park: Youth players can accelerate their development by being exposed to a wide range of experiences and competitions. The U-20 World Cup is the foremost stage for this purpose, because players get the chance to assess themselves by competing against the most talented players from around the world.
Serbia defied the odds to win the last edition, but they failed to qualify for the 2017 UEFA European U-19 Championship and lost the chance to defend their crown. Do you see any favourites to win this time around?
Ahn: Football is very unpredictable, especially at U-20 level. As well as Serbia, Belgium also failed to qualify, despite [their senior team] being second in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. And while specific teams will emerge as candidates when continental qualification begins in early 2017, the favourites will probably be a traditional European or South American powerhouse, or one of the African teams who have been especially strong at youth level. Nevertheless, with home advantage, I believe we can put up a strong challenge as well.
Park: Upsets are more likely to happen at the U-20 World Cup than at the FIFA World Cup. The players are still developing their physical and mental endurance, so results can be unpredictable.
Though neither of you featured at a U-20 World Cup, did other age-category tournaments help you achieve your goals at senior level?
Ahn: I played in more senior tournaments than youth ones, but the ones I did participate in continuously exposed me to new experiences and laid the foundations for my time as a professional.
Park: When I was 19, I was fortunate to experience my first international tournament with the U-23s at the 2000 Olympic Games. It was an opportunity for me to set higher goals, grow as a footballer and broaden my horizons.
Just as we were able to achieve miraculous results in 2002, I’m similarly excited for next year’s U-20 World Cup.
What advice would you give to the U-20 players?
Ahn: A player should always be confident and not be afraid to make mistakes. At the start of the tournament, everyone begins on equal terms. The pressure of participating in an event this big will inevitably lead to errors, so I’d tell the players to avoid dwelling on their mistakes and continue to play with confidence.
Park: The U-20 world cup is a valuable and significant event – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I hope the players can stay injury-free and enjoy it to its fullest.
How much do you know about the current crop of Korean youth players and what’s been your impression of their recent results in youth tournaments?
Ahn: Having commentated on a lot of games on TV, I’ve developed an interest in many of them. Woo Chanyang, Lim Minhyeok, and Kim Junghwan have all turned professional and are likely to feature in the 2017 tournament. Along with Hwang Heechan from the U-23 Olympic team, these players have left the greatest impression on me. Further down the line we have Lee Seung Woo of FC Barcelona as well. These impressive youngsters are developing in the best possible environments, so in the near future I believe our national team will fare well at international tournaments.
Park: At the last U-17 World Cup we made it to the Round of 16, which bodes well for Korean Football. Just as we were able to achieve miraculous results in 2002, I’m similarly excited for next year’s U-20 World Cup.
What’s your favourite memory of the 2002 World Cup?
Ahn: Most fans would expect me to say the Round of 16 against Italy, but personally my favourite moment was scoring the equalizing goal against USA in the group stage. Had we lost, there would have been incredible pressure on us to defeat Portugal, and we may not have qualified for the Round of 16 in at all.
Park: My favourite memory was witnessing the power of football. It was touching to see how football was able to unite and inspire the whole country.
Why should fans take an interest in the U-20 World Cup and how can you encourage the Korean public to watch and follow this tournament?
Ahn: The players at this tournament will be the stars of world football over the next decade. Fans will be treated to talented players performing at a high level, while those working within the game will get the chance to directly witness the development of world football. For those reasons, I’d love to see everyone take an interest in the tournament, or better still, come to the stadiums and fully appreciate all the emotion and energy.
Park: Over the years, we’ve seen many players at the U-20 World Cup become top footballers, and I think that observing the players who will lead the next generation is very exciting. Next year we’ll not only see Korean youngsters showcasing their talents, we’ll also have the chance to gauge the future stars of Korean football.