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KFA 75th Birthday – Top 5 Moments in Korean Football History

By Aashish Gadhvi

Perry Como’s iconic 60’s tune ‘Magic Moments’ features the line – “The way that we cheered, whenever our team was scoring a touchdown”. Sports is part of our culture, our history and our memories. Personally speaking, I have absolutely no recollection of the time and date prior to this very moment. My memories are defined by sporting events, Olympics, Football and Cricket World Cups, and what I was doing before, during and after the games. Having said that I am also an anti-social Statto with far too much time on his hands. But getting more to the point, sports defines our history and culture, and with the 75th Birthday of the KFA, those magic moments of South Korean soccer will come flooding back into our memory like ’twas yesteryear.

A few points to make first, you will notice that all of the moments I have mentioned are all pretty recent. A few reasons for this: firstly there is a huge lack of information about Korean football pre-WW2, maybe because of the Japanese but probably because there wasn’t as much documented interest in those days. The main reason is however because most of the great moments of South Korean soccer have come in recent years, even though they have one of the longest football histories in Asia, as plenty of archaic photos of pig’s bladders can vouch for. Most importantly I would like to thank my good friend Moon Sung-joo for his ever increasing help in my quest to unearth Korea’s footie history! So here’s goes the countdown, as usual criticism are welcome!

5. The First Victory on Foreign Soil

Talk about having a serious monkey on your back. By 2006 Korea had qualified for every World Cup since 1986, something to boast about, but rather embarrassing was the inability to win a single match at any previous attempt. This was put right in 2002 in the first game against Poland, but that was home soil advantage. Win a game in Germany in 2006 and Korea would earn some major respect and lay some ghosts to rest. Togo was Korea’s best bet to get their first victory on foreign soil, and with their 2002 reputation this was probably the first time that Korea were expected to win a game at the World Cup finals. But the so-called African minnows were on course for an upset as they scored in the first half.

Lee Chun-soo equalises the scores in the 2006 World Cup
Lee Chun-soo equalises the scores in the 2006 World Cup

A shake-up of tactics, substitutions and mentality saw a resurgent Korea fight back from the get-go, and they were soon level with Lee Chun-soo’s free kick, which sent the large numbers of Korean fans into ecstasy. Ahn Jung-hwan’s long range effort sealed the deal and Korea scraped through 2-1 to claim a historic victory. But nevertheless they were yet again knocked out in the group stage. After the success of 2002 this match was the only real chance Korean fans got to justify the ‘AGAIN 2002’ signs. Let’s hope we don’t see any ‘AGAIN 2006’ signs in 2010.

4. The 1983 FIFA U-20 World Cup

Alan Hansen once proclaimed ‘You can’t win anything with kids’. Boy was he ever right about that! But you sure can give it a good go and defy the odds to put your country on the football map for the first time in a generation. Under-20 World Cups these days are nothing more than time-filler on Euro Sport, but there was a time when they meant something, and in 1983 Korea’s youngsters upset the odds and created ripples in the football world by finishing 4th. This was because of the new generation who played with a much more open mind than the rigidity of previous generations. There were many famous moments along the way, including beating hosts Mexico, Australia and an unforgettable Quart final with Uruguay.

South Korea beat Uruguay in the 1983 under-20s
South Korea beat Uruguay in the 1983 under-20s

They eventually lost to Brazil in the semi and also lost to Poland in the 3rd/4th place playoff but this was a great setter for the FIFA World Cup in 1986, in which Korea did display some good play, despite going out in the first round. Most importantly it inspired a generation of young Korean players to pick up playing the game, which benefited them greatly considering that those children would reach their physical prime in 2002. It also showed for the first time to the world that Korea could cut it with the best of them

3. The ‘Tokyo Daechup’

The ‘Tokyo Deachup’ or The Greatest Battle in Tokyo refers to an Asian World Cup Qualifying match on 28 September 1997 between Korea and fierce rivals Japan in Tokyo. Having beaten Korea in Seoul, Japan were edging closer to a place in their first ever World Cup, and that left a bitter pill to swallow for the Koreans. Come the rematch in Tokyo the Koreans were desperate to exert some revenge on Asia’s new golden boys. At the time there was a tremendous amount of hype around Japan and their emergence from Asian soccer, so people expected a repeat the result in Seoul. These expectations were met as Japan scored when Motohiro Yamaguchi chipped Kim Byung-ji to make it 1-0. The Japanese all but shut up shop, but with the game drawing to a close, Seo Jung-won managed to get his head on the end of a volley from a corner and make it 1-1.

Japan gutted after Lee's wonder goal
Japan gutted after Lee's wonder goal

That would have made it a fine moral victory. But right at the death of the match unlikely hero Lee Min-sung scored a belter with his left foot from long range, making history and getting sweet revenge on the old colonial masters. The 2-1 score line was met with jubilation back home, and humiliation in Japan, who promptly sacked their manager following the match. Prior to the 2002 World Cup this was the most famous match in Korean history and Lee’s wonder goal was the sporting moment that lived in the hearts of the people.

2. Ahn Jung-hwan’s Golden Goal

Guus Hiddink was told when he took the Korean manager job that he needed to get to the last 16. Poland and Portugal had been humbled and Korea were through. Job done. Or at least that’s what we thought when Korea faced Italy in second round of World Cup 2002. Many people would probably have felt that all Korea had to do was not get slaughtered. But leading up to the match, Italy had reverted back to their negative defensive football that nearly saw them exit the tournament at the group stages. But they narrowly squeaked through and tried to exert the same tactics on Korea as Cristian Vieri scored early on, and held the lead until the dying moments.

Ahn Jung-hwan celebrates the humiliation of Italy
Ahn Jung-hwan celebrates the humiliation of Italy

Once again late drama was the order of the day, as the fresh-faced Seol Ki-hyeon equalised in normal time to force the game into extra time. Penalties were looming large but with literally seconds to go, Lee Young-pyo lobbed the ball up into the box, and there waiting was South Korean football’s pin-up boy Ahn Jung-hwan, who missed a penalty earlier in the match, towering over Italian legend Paolo Maldini to head in the golden goal which literally sent the country into a frenzy like it had never known. Korea advances to the quarter finals where they beat Spain on penalties, but Ahn’s goal is a much more famous moment than Hong Myung-bo’s winning penalty for the reason that it sent shock waves through the football world and made Korea a force. The goal also has the unfortunate trivia of 2 people dying of heart attacks when the goal went in. But this is also testament to how much the goal meant to the Korean people and how much emotional investment they had in the match. More drama followed the goal as Ahn was sacked by his Italian club, Perugia. He eventually left there and tried his hand at various clubs in Europe, but all failed. He eventually returned to Japanese football and then to Korea where he currently plays for Pusan I’Park. For as much as a great moment this goal was, it is sad that the illustrious career in Europe never materialised for Ahn after the tournament, and in football terms he has fallen off the face of the earth. But his place in history will always be cemented thanks to an extra two inches of hang time.

1. The 2002 World Cup

No prizes for guessing what tops our list. Poland: outplayed. Portugal: humbled. Italy: humiliated. Spain: dumped. What else could it be? World Cup 2002 saw the greatest moments in Korean football history.

Who would have believed that Korea, having never won a World Cup match, would finish 4th-best team at the tournament? It was truly the stuff of legend. Poland, the Korean’s first match, were severely dealt with, and the 2-0 score line was truly flattering to the Poles. In reality it could have been 4 or 5.

Then followed a heated match with the USA, and political situation aside, a 1-1 draw was a fair result for the spirited Americans. This match did however see Ahn Jung-hwan’s ice-skating celebration, aimed at reminding the Americans of a dodgy gold medal in ice-skating which Korea were robbed of.

Portugal hoped to play out a draw which would see them qualify as well. But a certain sprightly lad by the name of Park Ji-sung saw that there was no hope of that. A major European scalp was claimed, but surely they couldn’t do it again.

The 2002 World Cup - South Korean football's finest moment
The 2002 World Cup - South Korean football

But they did do it again. And again. How many other nations can claim to have knocked out Portugal, Italy and Spain in one tournament? Much has been made of the refereeing since the tournament. I will however defend till I die, that the only team who were genuinely hard done by were Spain, who any hard core Korean fan would have to admit deserved to go through. The Italians, for all their conspiracy-theory rants, saved a penalty and had plenty of chances from Cristian Vieri. It’s not the fault of the referees if an Italian striker has a horror show. Tomassi’s offside decision would be given off 9 times out of 10, and Totti DID dive. But in a big tournament you need luck to go far. Korea had probably ran out of gas by the time they were knocked out by Germany in the semi final and lost to Turkey in the 3rd/4th place play off, but they were already legends by that point. Off the field the scenes of support for the team were unbelievable. The entire country was paved in red. Man, woman and child chanted ‘Deahan minkuk’ and the Red Devil culture was the most intimidating sight for any opposing team. Scenes of such fanatical support had never seen before, and will probably never be seen again. This was Korea’s greatest moment in their sporting history, and the importance was never understated. At the time Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung had declared the quarter final victory against Spain to be the greatest moment in the country’s history. This was their finest hour.

Red Devil fans in City Hall Plaza
Red Devil fans in City Hall Plaza

Two years ago, I went on holiday to Seoul and walked into the Seoul World Cup Stadium. I sat there as the ground was completely empty apart from me. It was a surreal experience to be sat alone in a vast ground. I knew I was somewhere special, but seeing somewhere on television and visiting it can be a different experience. It seemed that history had not been kind to the greatest moment in Korea’s history, and it would, like many other things in Asia, become a distant past, built over by an unforgiving future. Suddenly, in a distant speaker, all I could hear was ‘Daehan minkuk’ and the thumps of 5 drum beats. A chill ran down my spine.


8 thoughts on “KFA 75th Birthday – Top 5 Moments in Korean Football History

  1. A great article!

    You know? Unfortunately, Cha Boom didn’t play in the 1983 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
    You should change the photo and I am sorry I didn’t find the correct photos or images because of too low quality.

    I would like to read more your articles!

  2. how cool it is.

    I’ve just read your article and I am absolutely your side.
    But I think the 1st moment should be our firs stage on the our 1st world cup.
    Though the game, we recognised the gap between us and others.
    However, finally, we won the game.

    I can’t forget when we bited italy, spain, portugee, and so on.
    I don’t mean we are stronger than them, but we can bit them anytime.


  3. Great article, Aashish!
    Seo Jung Won’s last minute equalizer against Spain in 94′ is probably worth mentioning as well!
    The win against Togo was memorable but the match itself was pretty scrappy.

  4. Hi there, Aashish Gadhvi,
    This is a very interesting article!. I am also writing an academic article on Red Devil phenomenon in South Korea for an academic journal. I was looking for an illustrative image of theRed Devil crowd to highlight my point in the text and found the image in your text here the best among those I have seen online.
    Are you the owner of this image? Can I ask your a permission to use it for an academic publishing purpose. This is not for commercial pupose. The journal that will publish this is Journal for Cultural Research. Please do let me know.

    Soyang Park from Toronto.

    PS. I am a friend of Philip Gowman from UK!

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