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Ahn's golden moment

Ahn Junghwan celebrates his goal against Italy
© Getty Images
  • ​Anything their neighbours from the north could do to Italy…
  • Ahn’s Golden Goal incredibly earned him the sack from his Italian club
  • Totti was left with egg on his face

Every footballer goes through ups and downs during their career. Some even undergo the rollercoaster ride in the duration of a single match. For Ahn Jung-Hwan, that particular match proved to be the turning point of his nomadic career, as he scored a memorable golden goal for Korea Republic against Italy at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™.

The Taeguk Warriors went on to reach the last four of the tournament on home soil, the greatest achievement of any Asian side at the world’s premier event. And, ironically, the epic win over Gli Azzurri signalled an end to Ahn’s playing career in Serie A. takes a closer look at the moment that shook one peninsula and silenced another.

The stakes
Korea Republic had arrived at the tournament with one simple goal: to win a World Cup match. By the time they faced the Italians in the Round of 16, Guus Hiddink’s side had already overachieved, having beaten Poland and Portugal in the group stage to reach the second round. It seemed the Taeguk Warriors had nothing left to win or lose. However, Hiddink had different ideas and, as he insisted throughout the tournament: “We are still hungry.” Still, few could understand why the Dutchman travelled to Suwon to spy on the Round of 16 match between Spain and Republic of Ireland instead of preparing for the encounter with the Italians two days later.

For their part, Italy desperately needed to get back on track following lacklustre performances against Croatia and Mexico in Japan, as well as acclimatising to their new surroundings in Korea. However, confidence was building in the Italian camp. Francesco Totti even told the press: “One goal will be enough to beat the Koreans.”

The story
Even before the national anthems were played, the Italians were greeted not only by an intimidating atmosphere, but also a giant card display spelling out ‘AGAIN 1966’ – a cruel reminder of Korea DPR’s stunning victory over Italy in England 36 years earlier.

With first-choice centre-halves Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta ruled out, Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni gave Francesco Coco and Mark Iuliano their first starts at the finals, while left-back Christian Panucci moved into the centre to partner Paolo Maldini. The reshuffle, however, seemed to backfire within the first five minutes as Panucci pulled down Seol Ki-Hyeon inside the area. Ahn Jung-Hwan stepped up to convert the resulting penalty, only to see his low shot brilliantly parried away by Gianluigi Buffon.

Italy went on to take the lead, as expected, in the 18th minute, when Christian Vieri rose higher than Korean defenders to direct his header into the top corner of the net following Totti’s corner from the left. The Italians then sat back and attempted to lock the door, but the Taeguk Warriors launched a series of attacks, with Ahn twice coming close to equalising as half-time approached.

After the hour-mark, Hiddink took a gamble on attacking football by bringing a trio of forwards, while his counterpart Trapattoni replied by calling Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluca Zambrotta back to the bench. With six forwards now united in attempting to break the catenaccio, Korea Republic finally got their reward with only two minutes remaining, as Seol latched on to Panucci’s attempted clearance and drilled the ball low into the corner to send the crowd wild.

The Koreans picked up in the extra time where they had left off in the second half, and to make matters worse for the Italians, Totti received his marching orders after picking up a second yellow card. And then, with a penalty shootout just three minutes away, came the Golden Goal, Ahn heading a cross from Lee Young-Pyo just inside Buffon’s left-hand post.

The star
A clinical forward, Ahn Jung-Hwan was initially famous for his deadly right foot before he gained national stardom thanks to a rare header against the mighty Italians. Ahn scored his third World Cup goal against Togo at Germany 2006, becoming Korea Republic and Asia’s all-time top scorer at world football’s showpiece event.

They said
“It’s true that winning goals last in your memories. Besides, it was a World Cup goal and something like that is not forgotten easily.”
Ahn Jung-Hwan, Korea Republic forward

“We could and should have won this game, but we just couldn’t do it.”
Giovanni Trapattoni, Italy coach

What happened next…
Korea Republic went on to beat Spain on penalties to reach the semi-finals, where they went out narrowly 1-0 to Germany. Unfortunately for Ahn, he was released by Perugia in acrimonious circumstances shortly after his heroics against Italy. He went on to continue his career in Japan, France, Germany, Korea Republic, and then recently in China PR, to become one of the most travelled players in South Korea’s history. Italy, meanwhile, bounced back from their disappointing campaign at Korea/Japan 2002 to win their fourth World Cup at the following edition in Germany.