Heart of Football

Interview with Danny Lewis, author of When Asia Welcomed The World: The 2002 World Cup Revisited

After Japan’s stunning 2-1 comeback win over Germany at the Qatar 2022 World Cup, and Saudi Arabia’s incredible shock win over tournament favourites Argentina on Tuesday, has Asia’s time to make serious inroads in world football arrived? We spoke to Danny Lewis, author of When Asia Welcomed The World: The 2002 World Cup Revisited, back in July about his wonderful retrospective.

You named your book When Asia Welcomed The World – How much do you believe FIFA’s decision to host the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea was motivated by a genuine attempt to spread the world game as globally as possible, or were there elements of trying to sway votes from Asian members and generate greater revenue?

I think there was a political aspect to the assignment, as Japan and South Korea didn’t have the best relations and had both thrown large amounts of money into their own individual bids before eventually being given an ultimatum that they would host the tournament together or not at all. There had even momentarily been talk of North Korea hosting some games but that was eventually scrapped.

With that said, Mexico was the closest contender but had already hosted the World Cup in 1986, while the United States of America had done so in ‘94, meaning it would have been three out of the last five editions held in the CONCACAF region if Mexico had won. So, this could definitely have also been a genuine decision to diversify the World Cup experience and spread the game globally.

What were your own personal connections to Asia before the tournament, or did it open your eyes to a new footballing culture as you experienced the World Cup from afar?

I was actually six years old when the 2002 World Cup was played, so seeing the Asian culture from afar, the wider fanfare around games and how big football can be opened up a whole new world to me. Of course, I’d kicked the ball about in my back garden before then, but that tournament made me fall in love with the sport and showed me the spectacle it can create. I haven’t yet been to Asia, but would love to do so at some point and visit some of the stadiums that hosted matches.

Rivaldo’s feigning injury against Turkey, Roy Keane’s dramatic and explosive departure, Byron Moreno’s corrupt officiating, Perugia sacking Ahn Jung-Hwang for knocking out Italy – which scandal or drama caught your eye the most, and why?

For me, Zlatko Zahovič being sent home after Slovenia’s opening defeat against Spain was the most fascinating. That is partly because it has a lower profile to those mentioned in the question and I had been unaware of it before doing my research for the book. The other reason is that it seemed so innocuous at first, with Zahovič being substituted, but evolved into an issue that displayed the completely different ideologies of he and Srečko Katanec as well as the history of Ljubljana and Maribor among other topics. There was so much to unpack which made it very enjoyable to cover, though both player and manager came out of the incident worse off.

Roy Keane’s dramatic departure caught many headlines, but the sublime talents of Zlatko Zahovic were also sent home early by Slovenia head coach Srečko Katanec

What gave this tournament a special character in your eyes?

This is the World Cup that made me fall in love with football, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. Some people were put off by the number of upsets and felt that it detracted from the quality of football being played with fewer large nations reaching the latter stages, but as a youngster I found it inspiring and it made me feel as though anything was possible. It undoubtedly has a divisive legacy and it’s clear to see why, but there were plenty of incredible moments to enjoy.

Which games, players and moments stood out for you in particular?

Senegal’s draw against Uruguay was simply mad and incredible to watch, while Brazil’s win over Costa Rica was pure entertainment. As an Englishman, the win over Argentina and David Beckham’s penalty is an obvious choice, as is Ronaldo with his story of redemption and resilience in the final.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the obvious choices such as Brazil’s various stars, indomitable goalkeepers Oliver Kahn and Rüştü Reçber, as well as Ahn Jung-hwang. Some of my other favourites were Belgium’s Marc Wilmots, Turkey’s Hasan Şaş and Spain’s Javier de Pedro.

My top moments include Papa Bouba Diop scoring against Senegal, Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Germany and the absolute madness at the beginning of the third-place play-off. Even though he didn’t score, seeing José Luis Chilavert take his free-kicks was very entertaining.

Describe the process of and motivation for conceptualizing, researching and distilling the book.

I’ll start with the motivation, which came from wanting to write about the World Cup that had ignited my love for football. There were a few ways I could have gone about writing the book, but a big part of the process for me personally was to relive the games I’d seen as a child and add clarity to my memories. Therefore, I decided to watch back every minute of the action that took place, meticulously noting down what happened so I was writing the book based off what I had seen with my own two eyes rather than others’ opinions. I felt it was especially important to do that with this specific World Cup, due to how many differing opinions there are about it and how divisive it has become. It was a very time consuming process but I feel it was worth it.

The moment the whole process of writing a book becomes worth it – delivery of the first copies

In addition to writing in-depth match reports based off what I watched, I added context around certain individuals and incidents, giving the reader an insight into why they were so significant. I also wrote about narratives and expectations for the various teams before their first game and about the feeling around each team’s World Cup after their last one.

Twenty years on, what impact would you say the 2002 World Cup has had on football as a global concept, and more specifically on Japan and South Korea?

Aside from the obvious fact that they now have improved stadiums and infrastructure, I think the World Cup definitely had a positive impact on football in Japan and South Korea. That impact massively grew thanks to both nations breaking new ground on the pitch, as neither of them had previously made it out of the group stages but both did so this time around. Son Heung-min has even spoken about how much of a celebration there was when he watched on as a youngster. However, it can be argued that some of the stadiums have become white elephants.

I think the World Cup’s wider impact is the fact that it was the first to be co-hosted; there will be three hosts in 2026 so it will be interesting to see how that works. It also saw Brazil become the first (and so far only) nation to win five World Cups. Outside of that, the 2002 World Cup has such a confused legacy that it is probably difficult for it to have had much of a concrete global impact other than being something to debate about. It feels as though this World Cup has been dismissed by some, but that definitely shouldn’t be the case in my opinion.

When Asia Welcomed The World: The 2002 World Cup Revisited is out now – order a copy HERE



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