The Euro became the official currency of twelve countries, the Queen Mother of the UK died aged 101 and the trial of the former President of Yugoslavia Slobodan Miloševic began at The Hague, but it was what happened in the summer of 2002 that remains in the hearts and minds of all who had the pleasure of witnessing it forever.
It was the year of one of the best World Cups to ever take place. The tournament was a one of firsts, the first championship held in Asia and the first to be held jointly by two different nations. The World Cup in Korea and Japan pleaded to be judged on the greatness of the competition above all, upon the excellence of its football, the number of great matches and the range of memories it generated. While many were excited by the prospect, it had its critics. But looking back 20 years on, the critics had nothing to worry about. It was a tournament for the ages.
It happened upon the perfect mixture of exotic venues, some of the best players to ever grace the game, in the case of your humble narrator – an Irish team that dared to believe, for the English it was a chance to see the true golden generation come to the fore, likewise the Portuguese. There was of course pre-tournament drama as well as the birth of superstars the world never expected.
Up to this point the tournament was held in various countries across Europe and the Americas. Mexico, Italy, USA, France, to name but a few, were the previous nations to host, but 2002 offered something completely different. We were off to Korea and Japan, while the world thought they knew about Japan and Japanese culture, very little was known about its co-host. Korea, a land of war, divided along the 38th parallel, and with questionable dietary habits – rough. But by the end of the summer we were all craving Kimchi and some beers with Ahn Jung-hwan.
In a tournament of firsts we also witnessed the first proper purpose built stadiums. We saw a retractable roof in Kobe and also a glorious stadium with a retractable pitch in the Sapporo Dome. In Korea the stand out, on a personal level, was a venue that would become my home only 8 years after the tournament, Ulsan’s Munsu Stadium.
They demanded the tournament be judged by its quality – one doesn’t need to look further than the talent on show that summer to determine how great it really was. Raul, Henry, Owen, Titov, Ibrahimovic, Aimar, Crespo, Rivaldo, Figo, Ballack, Totti, Recoba, Cannavaro, *takes deep breath* Zidane, Del Piero, Nakata… and that is before we consider the stars that were born at the tournament. We were also graced by arguably some of the best goalkeepers to ever don the gloves of the beautiful game. Kahn, Canizares, Buffon, Barthez – we saw the man mountain that was Mohammed Al Deayea from Saudi Arabia with his sweatpants and goalscoring supremo Jose Luis Chilavert. It was truly a lineup of dreams!
As an Irishman too, we had reason to believe, pre-tournament drama aside, which we will discuss in a bit. But Ireland had probably the best team ever put together by the country. Robbie Keane was scoring regularly, the ever effervescent Damien Duff dazzling on the wing, Ian Harte with his wand of a left foot was always a threat from free kicks, Shay Given, one of the Premier League’s greatest keepers was as safe as houses – and who didn’t dream of a team of Gary Breens. Knocking out The Netherlands in qualification, the Boys in Green were never going to win the tournament but they could certainly hold their own. Two draws and a win, from a group containing mighty Germany, dangerous Cameroon and the always experienced Saudi Arabia – only to be knocked out by Spain on penalties was difficult and slightly unfair on a side which was already batting with one hand behind their collective backs following the dismissal of their talismanic captain pre-tournament.
England too, despite being in the Group of Death ™ – had hope. A truly balanced team was built by a certain Swede. The delightful David Beckham firing in crosses to a duo on fire in Michael Owen and Emile Heskey. David Seaman with his flowing locks oozed confidence in goals. It ended in tears, naturally. But there was hope. Portugal had a team at their peak too. Figo, Couto, Rui Costa, Pauleta – all names to be feared. But for all the star names they didn’t make it out of their group. Their expected spot taken by the soon to be heroes of the whole summer – hosts South Korea.
Prior to hosting the tournament Korea had been to the World Cup on five occasions. They had never won a single game. In 2002 they finished 4th. A team without a real megastar name prior to the tournament, only a true football anorak could have named anyone other than Park Ji-sung and their coach, Dutchman Guus Huddink when pressed to identify any of the Taeguk Warriors – but once the summer came to a close, there was barely a supporter worldwide who couldn’t list off Lee Woon-jae, Lee Chun-soo, Ahn Jung-hwan and Seol Ki-hyeon as the real stars of the tournament. Counting Portugal, Italy and controversially, Spain as their scalps, the Tigers found a place in the hearts and minds of neutrals the world over.
It wouldn’t be an article about the World Cup in 2002 without a brief mention of the pre-tournament drama. Sending home your star player before the action even kicked off is never the best preparation for a major tournament. Especially one that only comes around every four years and with no guarantee of qualifying for the next one – but that is exactly what Slovenia did. Sending home Zlatko Zahovic after 5 days of arguments with the national team coach. Ireland of course suffered a similar fate, sending home captain Roy Keane for his outburst about the team’s facilities on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. Slovenia lost all 3 of their games, but Ireland qualified for the round of 16, cruelly exiting at the hands of a shootout with Spain.
If a tournament is to be judged by the quality of football and the memories it generates, then 2002 might never be beaten for changing possibilities, for allowing us to dream, for showing us new places and amazing stadiums. In a largely pre-internet, and pre K-pop, world, 2002 showed the west a completely different way of life, a different way of football. A different way of building stadiums. A world cup of firsts, will always be first on my list of greatest tournaments.