The World Cup in 2002 had a number of notable results; Ronaldo’s 8 goals, Brazil winning their record 5th title, 2 countries hosting the World Cup for the first time and also South Korea’s remarkable run to the semi-finals. Unfortunately, South Korea’s run in that tournament is the most notable of all as it was marred by controversy over the course of the knockout stages.
Sentiments in Europe had already been negative, with millions of people having to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to catch the games but what was to come was way worse than any Italian or Spanish fan could have imagined.
The controversy centred on what many would view as exceptional refereeing decisions in the Round of 16 match between South Korea and Italy followed by the former’s quarterfinal win over Spain. Both games saw referee decisions directly result in South Korea gaining an advantage that most would deem as unfair.
For Koreans, the fairy tale lives on till today which started when they topped Group D with 7 points. They had beaten Poland in their first game before drawing with the USA. The controversy began when they beat favourites Portugal in their final fixture which saw the Portugese dumped out of the tournament. In that game, Joao Pinto was sent off in the 27th minute and Beto getting sent off in the 66th before Park Ji Sung scored the only goal of the game to send the hosts through.
With hindsight on how the rest of the knockout matches went for South Korea, there was uproar as to the 2 send-offs in that game especially with the straight red for Joao Pinto. With the pressing style of the Koreans making their games extremely combative, the challenge on Park Ji Sung could arguably have been left as a yellow as per some of the other challenges in the tournament. Objectively speaking though, a red card for the tackle could be construed as correct as well.
The real controversy began in the Round of 16 with Italy. The Italians were fielding some of the best players of the time; Totti, Del Piero, Nesta, Maldini, Inzaghi and also Vieri among a whole host of other names. Everybody was betting against the host nation to make it through to the next round but that is exactly what they managed to do.
The Koreans were already known for their pressing style that was created under the stewardship of their manager Guus Hiddink. The game turned out to be exactly what many expected; rough. However, many started seeing a trend that referee Byron Moreno appeared to be penalising Italy for their violations but not so much the Koreans.
The Italians had already taken the lead in the 20th minute but their support was becoming increasingly agitated over the steady stream of unpunished fouls. Over the course of the match, the Italians had a string of calls that controversially went against them; Totti was sent off for simulation when there was clearly contact, Tommasi had a goal wrongly chalked off as being offside, a 2 footed challenge on Zambrotta went without consequence and so did an elbow at Del Piero.
To rub salt in the wounds, the Koreans had equalised before the end of the match and won it on the Golden Goal Rule just 3 minutes before the game were to have gone to penalties.
The Italians were incensed by the game, with calls for the game to be nulled and replayed with a different referee. The Spanish would soon join the mob as they had 2 goals ruled out in the quarterfinals. The first goal was ruled out for shirt pulling (there actually was some of that going on but one could argue was fair during those times) and the other was perplexingly chalked off as the linesman had waved that the ball had gone out of play on the cross made by Joaquin. Replays proved that the ball was nowhere near to having been out of play, further adding fuel to the fire back in Europe.
It must be stated that after all these years, there has been no evidence that either games had been the result of match-fixing. However, there have multiple breadcrumbs that have led most to believe that the referees were indeed capable of swinging the matches in favour of the Koreans.
Byron Moreno was eventually suspended for 20 games by the Ecuadorian football authorities due to timekeeping errors with FIFA also investigating him due to other controversies. He was later arrested and convicted on drug smuggling charges in the USA.
Moreover, the one man who was apparently in charge of appointing the referees for the games, Jack Warner, was eventually suspended under corruption allegations which led to his resignation in 2011. The 2015 FIFA scandal which saw multiple personnel charged with corruption has further convinced the public that their convictions that those matches were a farce are legitimate.
That World Cup should be remembered for so much more but unfortunately, this mark would be biggest memory for all except the Koreans themselves. Nothing will ever take away from their successful campaign.