When Hong Myung-bo lead his Korean side out ahead of their opening match of the 2002 World Cup against Poland on 4 June, few could have predicted what was to follow over the coming weeks.
They won that game 2-0 before a 1-1 draw with the US. A 1-0 humbling of Portugal sealed their progress from the group and South Korea managed to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. The route included wins over Italy and Spain and it was only a 75th-minute Michael Ballack goal that prevented them from reaching the final.
Fast-forward 12 years and Hong will again lead his team into battle at the FIFA World Cup, this time from the dug-out. And thanks to the exploits of that historic 2002 team, he will do so with a significantly larger weight of expectation on his back.
But expectations, I think that’s always a problem for every team going into a World Cup. [In] 2006 I think the expectations were too high
While few could doubt that 2002 was a landmark moment and significantly changed Korean football for the better, it has perhaps given the Korean public a false sense of their true spot in world football, with future World Cup teams failing to live up to the now high expectations of fans.
“I think it’s normal in football if you’re in the 2002 World Cup you go to the semis, you still have a lot of good players in your team, you go to 2006 the expectation is that you can do it again,” Pim Verbeek, assistant coach with Korea in 2002, told Al Jazeera.
“But expectations, I think that’s always a problem for every team going into a World Cup. [In] 2006 I think the expectations were too high.”
High expectations again
Shortly after the official draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Korean research company Gallup conducted a poll asking Koreans if they expected the Taeguk Warriors to progress from the group stages. A whopping 81 per cent said yes.
But is it fair to compare every Korean side to that from 2002? And just how far has Korean football progressed since that historic tournament?
“We had the whole team together for five months,” Verbeek explained. “We went to the US for the Gold Cup, we went to big training camp in Spain for four weeks and we had preparation in Korea itself. I think that was the basis of the success.”
Neither Dick Adovcaat in 2006 nor Huh Jung-moo in 2010 received the benefit of such an extensive and intensive training camp with their squad. That is partly because in 2002, 16 of the 23-man squad were based in Korea. As a result of their exploits in 2002, eyes have been opened around the world and that number has declined steadily in recent years, with more players heading to Europe.
Defender Lee Yong-pyo is one of those. In 2002, he was playing with Anyang LG Cheetahs (now FC Seoul). On the back of 2002, he made his way to Holland following Guus Hiddink and teammate Park Ji-sung to PSV Eindhoven. A successful career in Europe followed, with stints at Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund.
And so it is in 2014, with ten of the squad based in Europe, and tellingly those ten have an average age of just over 24. Only one member of the squad, Kwak Tae-hwi, is aged over 30. In 2002 that number was seven. And that difference in experience is what Lee, a member of the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup squads, sees as the difference between 2002 and 2014.
“The players in the 2014 squad are equally great, but missing those experience like the 2002 squad had before,” he said.
“My expectation is that this group can do a great job in the Asian Cup and probably in the next World Cup,” he declared. “Because then they are all in the best age – 28-29-30 – and not at this moment.”
Change at the top
The ghost of Hiddink loomed large post 2002, and Korea struggled to find a permanent replacement for the legendary coach, who was awarded honorary citizenship of Korea after 2002. Including caretakers, no less than four coaches came and went before the Korean Football Association (KFA) appointed fellow Dutchman Advocaat in 2005, and a total of ten coaches have taken the reins of the team since 2002, including the current coach, Hong.
Verbeek returned in 2005, again as an assistant, this time to Advocaat, before taking the head coach role in 2006 after the World Cup. At a domestic level he had noticed a big change.
“The league was by far a lot better,” the Dutchman proclaimed. “The whole league in those years they improved a lot in organisation, in youth development and so the K-League itself was already much better.”
But that meant that a situation such as 2002, when the KFA pulled the national team players from their clubs to train for five months leading into the World Cup, was now impossible.
The 2014 task
With a growing football culture that was inevitable. It was impractical to think such a practice could become a regular occurrence. From any tournament there is always a debate as to its legacy. So what is the ultimate legacy from 2002 for Korea?
In the view of those involved its greatest legacy is that it changed the way Korea viewed itself, and importantly the way the world viewed Korea.
“When I left Europe to go working in Korea in 2001 with Hiddink the overall impression [was] that nobody had any idea about Korea,” Verbeek recalled. “I think the World Cup 2002 changed everything. Not only in the football, but also in the commercial world. I think the legacy of being successful in 2002 and organising the tournament in 2002, yeah that paid off. I think that paid off more than everybody expected, because after that the whole world knew South Korea.”
And for the players, both those involved in 2002 and those that followed, it gave them arguably the most important trait a footballer can have – belief.
“The greatest legacy of the tournament was that it broke the fear of the world that Korean players had in the past,” Lee explained. "They used to be afraid of playing against foreign players, but now they can compete freely with any team.”