World Cup Special: 18 Tournaments, 18 Moments – Japan/South Korea 2002

Bitter Italy

Italy are one of the greatest nations in World Cup history, winning the tournament four times. But if 2002 taught us anything they are terrible losers.

The Italians did not have the best of tournaments and limped to the round of 16. They were convincing in their opener against Ecuador but went down 2-1 to Croatia in their second match. A late Alessandro Del Piero goal from the bench secured a 1-1 draw and a date with co-hosts South Korea.

On the other hand the Koreans were playing the football of their lives in front of their home fans. The Asians topped their group beating both Portugal and Poland and grabbing a deserved draw against fellow surprise package the United States.

There were bad omens for the Italians going into the game. They had famously lost to North Korea in 1966, a goal by Pak Doo-Ik knocking them out in the group stages. However, the star-studded Italians, with a side featuring Paolo Maldini, Del Piero and Francesco Totti, led the game for around 70 minutes with a first half goal from Christian Vieri.

Not knowing when they were beaten, the Koreans grabbed an equaliser with just two minutes remaining and, with the momentum swinging their way, Perugia’s Ahn Jung-Hwan settled the tie with a golden goal with just three minutes on the clock.

In fairness, South Korea were lucky, they were awarded a controversial penalty after just four minutes, which they missed, Totti was harshly dismissed in extra-time and at least two good goals were ruled out.

The Italians, not used to being upset, cried foul play, with conspiracy theories touted from Milan to Napoli.

Even worse was the treatment of Korean hero Ahn. The day after the game Perugia owner Luciano Gaucci cancelled his contract and was quoted as saying, “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football.”

Guacci later did a u-tun but Ahn held firm. “I will no longer discuss my transfer to Perugia, which attacked my character instead of congratulating me for a goal in the World Cup,” he said.

Four years later, after many of Italy’s top players were embroiled in the calciopoli scandal, Italy went on to win the tournament.

And none of Italy’s overseas players were threatened with the sack.