Remembering Ahn Jung-hwan’s Golden Goal against Italy and the strangest World Cup subplot

The 2002 World Cup wasn’t what you would call a ‘normal’ tournament, for a number of reasons.

It included some superb goals, from Edmilson’s bicycle kick against Costa Rica to a contender for the best team goal in tournament history from Salif Diao. We got some shocks too; the United States seeing off Portugal with three goals in the first 36 minutes and South Korea and Turkey both making it to the semi-final stage.

But it was perhaps in extra-time of two knockout games where we saw the most preposterous developments – which continued long after the World Cup was over.

Turkey’s quarter-final victory over Senegal will forever (well, presumably forever) remain known as the last ever men’s international game to be decided by a Golden Goal, but the scorer – Ilhan Mansiz – tried his best to make sure that moment didn’t define him. He quit football in his early thirties after a series of injuries and embarked on a top-level figure-skating career, taking part in qualifiers for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

In normal circumstances, the Turkish striker’s career trajectory would be as strange as it got, but this was no ordinary World Cup. Just four days earlier – 15 years ago this month – Italy were stunned by hosts South Korea in Daejeon courtesy of another Golden Goal scored by Ahn Jung-hwan.

‘A Red Nightmare’ was how Gazzetta Dello Sport described a last-16 tie that Italy should have had wrapped up long before Ahn’s 117th minute winner, but which many felt was always beyond them for reasons outside of their control.

Italy hadn’t exactly flown through the group stage, but the Azzurri are often at their most dangerous when gradually building momentum. A late Alessando Del Piero equaliser against Mexico helped Giovanni Trapattoni’s side sneak through with four points from their three group games. But next up it was South Korea, and Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno.

“Seeing that match was so frustrating because it was clear that we were not allowed to win the game,” says Fabio Fedele, an Italian football fan living in London who still blames Moreno for the defeat. “We fully deserved to win but we couldn’t. At the end, in Italy, no one blamed Ahn for that goal because it was clear that the responsibility for the loss was exclusively with Byron Moreno.”

It was all going to plan when Christian Vieri broke the deadlock in the first half, and it’s easy to forget how close Italy were to winning in normal time. But an 88th minute equaliser from Seol Ki-Hyeon – he of the Nike ‘Cage’ advert – and an inexplicable open-goal miss from Vieri in the closing stages resulted in extra-time.

Francesco Totti, who had told the press that “one goal will be enough to beat the Koreans” before the game, was shown a second yellow card by Moreno in the opening period, while the ref also chalked off a Damiano Tommasi goal for offside. Ahn’s late winner was then met by claims of a conspiracy.

Italian newspaper Corriere de Sera were the biggest culprits in resorting to sensationalism, claiming that “Italy has been thrown out of a dirty World Cup where referees and linesmen are used as hitmen; no other team in the entire history of the World Cup has suffered so many injustices.” And even Totti got in of the act, speaking of a “desired elimination” following the final whistle.

The poor officiating and uncontrolled fury from Italy fans might normally have been the biggest story to emerge from the game, but there was another headline-grabbing act to follow. Ahn and Seol, South Korea’s two goalscorers, were the only members of the squad playing in Europe before the tournament. But while Seol’s Anderlecht were largely free from Italian wrath, Ahn had the misfortune of playing his club football for Perugia in Serie A.

If Serie A was the worst place for the striker to be employed in such a situation, Perugia was almost certainly the worst club. Owner Luciano Gaucci redefined the word ‘erratic’ in the early 2000s, signing the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, reportedly making approaches for Sweden women’s internationals Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson and – perhaps even more inexplicably – bringing in Jay Bothroyd.

The 2003/04 season may have been the one that characterised the Gaucci era – bizarre transfer dealings followed by relegation after just six wins from 34 league games – but the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup was its origin story.

Gaucci personally moved to end Ahn’s spell in Perugia after his World Cup goal, explaining: “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer. 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.”

It could have been seen as a publicity stunt, considering Ahn’s two-year loan with the Serie A club was about to end anyway, but it did not have its desired impact. Indeed, Gaucci later attempted to backtrack and made a bid to keep the player in Perugia for a third season – an offer that was unsurprisingly rejected.

“The day after South Korea vs Italy I remember Gaucci’s words in the papers, but I have to be honest, no one was surprised because Gaucci used to make weird speeches at the time,” says Fedele. “During his presidency, he always looked out of control and the decision to send Ahn away from Perugia after the game-winning goal was only another of his strange things.”

Ahn moved to Japan following the World Cup, after work permit issues scuppered a potential move to England with Blackburn Rovers, and enjoyed a fruitful few years in the J-League.

While he did return to Europe several years later, that spell at Perugia would prove to be his last in Italian football, and he revealed later in his career how it was not a happy time even before the World Cup in 2002.

“They seldom passed the ball to me in front of goal, even if they had no way for themselves to score,” he said in an interview shortly after retiring from the game, while claiming his relationship with Marco Materazzi was particularly difficult.

The moment when he glanced the ball beyond Gigi Buffon was no doubt made that much sweeter by the sight of Materazzi on the opposing bench, joining his teammates in a display of righteous anger which continued raging until it was extinguished in the World Cup final four years on.

The same stage of the 2006 competition saw Italy benefit from a generous decision themselves, when referee Luis Medina Cantalejo pointed to the spot deep into stoppage time to help a 10-man Azzurri side edge past Australia into the quarter-finals.

Maybe they’ll call it even.

Remembering Ahn Jung-hwan’s Golden Goal against Italy and the strangest World Cup subplot
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