Surely you have heard stories about match fixing, rigged elections, referees being paid off, all of that, but not many of those come close to the 2002 world cup scandal.
To put it simply, South Korea had gone through decades of humiliation at the world cup, they were seen as a joke, every world cup nation was salivating at the possibility of facing them but one year they just said “no more”.
It was time to win at all costs, even if they had to play dirty, they hired a top class coach, pretty much infiltrated FIFA, stole the world cup bidding, bought all the referees they could and billions of dollars later, they left us with one of the biggest mysteries in football.
This is the story of how South Korea bought a world cup and still lost.
Owh and also the story of Byron Moreno, who was maybe the worst referee of all time and ended up becoming a drug dealer.
So… quick recap of how we got to this point, ever since the Koreans saw the British navy kicking a ball around, yelling at each other like mad men… They were fascinated.
But by the time the world cup became a thing, they weren’t really a country anymore, they were under the rule of the Japanese Empire.
And for years there was nothing to do about it, if you were a football fan, the best you could do was root for Japan and as you might imagine they didn’t like that too much.
Well, eventually that all ended… As world war 2 came to an end, the USA launched two atomic bombs over Japan and Korea just took the backdoor and became their own country again.
Less than a decade later, they were already trying to make it to the world cup.
They fought through qualification and oh sweet irony, they would have to play Japan, whoever won would be at the world cup.
What followed was an absolute trashing, 7 to 3 on aggregate.
South Korea was the first fully independent Asian nation to qualify for the world cup.
It was supposed to be glorious but 180 minutes later, they were out and all they had to show for it was 0 goals scored, 15 conceded, and only around 3 thousand people showed up to watch their match…that same day, nearly 60 thousand watched west germany play hungary.
Yeah it wasn’t the best legacy, but surely they would come back stronger.
And they did, 32 years later, when they finally managed to qualify again.
But unlucky for them, right on their first match they had to go against Maradona and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Once again, not a single win.
12 years later they hit their breaking point, they had easily defeated everyone in qualification but then 2 games into the world cup, they had already conceded 8 goals.
They didn’t even wait for the group stage to end, they just fired their manager on the spot and began plotting their plan to hire Gus Hiddink, who had just coached the Netherlands to a 5 nil win over them.
It was time to win the world cup, through any measures necessary, no more Mr. Nice Korea.
First of all, there was one main thing to be handled, if you’re going to rig a world cup, you might as well do it in your own country, you know to make things easier, so in a hollywood plot twist, South Korea decided to partner with no other than Japan, their previously sworn enemies to host the world cup.
This was especially significant back then, because not only had no world cup ever been set in Asia, no one had even applied to co-host a world cup.
Instantly there was a huge controversy.
Some just couldn’t get used to the idea of the world cup being set in two countries at the same time, some thought it was dumb for Japan to host the world cup if they had never even qualified, others thought the fact there was an entire sea between them would be a massive logistic issue, the timezones meant europeans would have to watch the games in the morning and finally of course most thought the stadium would end up empty, because there wouldn’t be enough footbal fans in those countries.
Regardless, their joint bid suspiciously ended up winning, though to be fair there was a surprising lack of bi ds that year, it was between them and Mexico, who for some reason just seem to bid every single time… However more controversy would come from this, as there were no actual ballots that year, FIFA says South Korea and Japan won through acclamation, which pretty much meant that whoever shouted the loudest would host the world cup.
Totally not suspicious, especially considering the FIFA vice president wasn’t Korean or anything…owh wait… he was, actually he was both the vice president of FIFA and the president of the Korean football association.
I’ll let you make your own conclusions.
In the end, everything went right and after spending 4.7 billion dollars on the tournament, they surprised everyone by how strong their support was.
However with the start of the tournament the real scandals began.
Now with Gus Hiddink at the wheel, their first match ended with a 2 nil win over Poland, it was surprising but not enough to set off any suspicions, the tournament went on… Then a 1 goal draw against the United Sta tes, sure there’s an odd penalty, 3 players go down and suspiciously there aren’t any good camera angles of it but still, nobody seemed to care much.
South Korea were now on 4 points, if they won the next match, they would surely make the knockout stage, however the next team to beat was Portugal, they had Rui Costa, Vítor Baía, Luis Figo in his prime, it was the start of their own golden generation and they needed the win just as much as South Korea.
In everyone’s eyes, they didn’t stand a chance.
But then, 2 red cards for Portugal and a 21 year old Ji-Sung Park scored the only goal of the game.
There’s no denying at this stage, the fouls were indeed there, but it was a hard fought game, with both teams being especially rough, South Korea even edged out Portugal in the fouls department, with 21 vs 19 and yet somehow Portugal got the short end of the stick by quite a margin.
It was strange but the world moved on, or at least it did until the last 16 match against Italy, because after that one, the planet might as well have stopped spinning.
First of all, I gotta introduce you to Byron Moreno… This Ecuadorian referee had been selected by FIFA ever since 1996, and was famous in his home country for being involved in shady local politics and even shadier refereeing… like he once added 13 minutes to a match, allowing the team to make a 2 goal comeback all in injury time, make of that what you will.
Regardless he would be the referee for their match against Italy, and let’s just say clearly he had some extra appreciation for the koreans. 5 minutes in and he’s already pointing towards the penalty spot, oddly enough once again there seems to be no good camera angle of the foul, but going by the look in the italians faces, it seems it wasn’t a very straightforward one.
This whole camera angle situation is especially suspicious considering the 2002 world cup was the first ever to be broadcasted in HD.
Fortunately for the Italians, Buffon picked the right side and nothing came off of it.
But from there on out, it was complete insanity, the koreans repeatedly hammered down at the italians, playing one of the most physical games ever seen at the world cup and still seemingly never getting booked.
They tripped Tommasi when he was through on goal and nothing.
Del Piero gets rugby tackled inside the penalty area, nothing.
Maldini gets kicked in the head, nothing once again.
Players laying on the pitch, bleeding out of their foreheads, Moreno didn’t care.
A south korean player smacks Del Piero with his elbow, 100% a red card any other day, but on that night nothing.
By the 90 minute mark, the match was settled in a 1 goal draw, which in 2002 meant it would be decided through a golden goal, whoever scored next won the match and so Moreno took it all above and beyond, Totti goes into the box dribbling, gets tripped by a defender, clearly there’s contact, Moreno signals for a foul, surely it’s a penalty but no… free kick for the koreans, Moreno considers Totti has dived and hands him his second yellow card of the match, sending him off… Unbelievable stuff, especially considering Moreno was 40 yards away when he supposedly dived.
Later on, Tommasi is completely through on goal, he dribbles past the keeper and just as he’s about to put Italy through… the whistle is heard, offside, except you probably guessed it already, he wasn’t, he really wasn’t.
To finish it all off, South Korea scores and the match is over.
The Italians weren’t just upset, they were completely livid.
Like forget the players on the pitch, with the adrenaline running sky high, you can forgive their behavior but back home, things went a little wild, not that they were wrong to, but wow….
Italian minister Franco Frattini would go out to say that the match was “a disgrace, absolutely scandalous”, that it seemed they “gathered around a table and decided to throw us out”.
The head of their delegation would not hold back either, saying “Korea is a powerful country, it’s clear they have done something, the refereeing was something out of a comedy film”.
And above all of this, I just have to tel l you about what might be the funniest and most absurd consequence out of all of this.
You know, the guy who scored the golden goal, , just so happened to play in Italy for Perugia and had scored more goals in the world cup than he had scored all year for his club, which led them to quite simply, fire him, just like that, saying “He will never set foot here again.
He only decided to play like a superstar once he was up against Italy.
This was a direct offense to our nation, a country who welcomed him with open arms two years ago”.
I mean, I get the frustration but the guy is a striker, did you expect him not to score goals? You should be happy, your player is in form now.
Moving on to the next game.
After sending home Del Piero, Maldini, Totti and a bunch of other giants, it was now time to tumble the great Spaniards.
With everyone from Hierro and Puyol to Morientes and Xavi, once again they stood no chance, so… suddenly football turned into boxing, elbows flying all over the place, every trough pass was offside, no matter where the players were and so as Spain went in front the goal was disallowed, apparently someone got too rough with one of the defenders… I didn’t see it, nobody did, but Gamal Al-Ghandour, the referee that day, did so it didn’t matter.
Later Luis Henrique was through to the goalkeeper, offside once again, except it wasn’t.
In extra time as they looked for the golden goal, a cross came in for Morientes, he headed it in and the linesman claimed the ball had gone out of bounds, it didn’t.
By the end of it all it would be time for a penalty shootout, surely they couldn’t mess this up, it’s pretty straight forward, right? The only miss of the shootout came from Joaquin, except the Korean goalkeeper came like 2 feet off his line before he took the shot, clearly it should have been retaken, but it wasn’t.
Once again many came out saying Spain had been robbed, Hierro said they already expected it after what happened to Italy and Portugal, the newspapers had a field day with all sorts of clever front pages and eventually FIFA had to come out and say something, with Sepp Blatter himself claiming it was just a “coincidence” and a matter of “exceptional circumstances”.
After this, there was no chance they could just keep doing what they’re doing and so in the semi finals against Germany, things followed a more normal path, with the Germans taking the win through a single goal by Ballack, which took nearly a whole 90 minutes of fighting to get.
There was still one strange occurrence, where maybe there could have been a penalty to Germany but no one cared, the Koreans were finally out.
The 3rd place match against turkey was like the final of the underdogs and after 10 seconds, turkey was already in front through hakan sukur and by the end it would be them who would take the Bronze medal.
Still the koreans had more than reason to be happy, their captain Myung-Bo won the Bronze Ball, as the third best player in the tournament and 2 of their players were selected in the best XI, the first and only ever time any asians achieved anything of this level.
Despite all of the controversy, among the koreans this was seen as a great achievement and a sort of miracle, with Gus Hiddink being so loved among the people, that he was granted honorary citizenship and gifted a whole villa in Korea.
Still after the world cup even more controversy came to light, with the French players who had played them before the world cup claiming they suspect they were doping, Frank Lebeouf even said “It’s like they were supercharged, no one saw them before and no one saw them after the world cup but they somehow got to the semi finals?? just a year before we beat them like 5 nil.
You don’t think that’s suspicious, suddenly they were fast as lightning”.
But I know what you’re asking… What about the referees? Well they didn’t really survive this… First Moreno decided to come out saying, let me check my notes… “Italians think I’m corrupt because corruption is their way of life.. they’re all immature, don’t go and blame Mr. Moreno, blame yourselves”… such an humble boy…. but then he seemed to realize he had a knack for match fixing, so he did a whole bunch more of it, until FIFA was like “hold on there buckaroo” and started investigating him which quickly led to him being suspended, which is odd, because according to them this had all just a huge oopsie, a big coincidence uh? Well regardless he got back after a year suspended and lived happily ever after… except I’m joking, after 3 weeks he sent off 3 players in the same match, getting the whole country against him and soon deciding to retire to escape all the criticism.
Surely now he would have a quiet life… and he did until 7 years later he was caught in New York City with 13 pounds of heroin stuck in his boxers, being sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
From the most incompetent referee to the most incompetent drug dealer, he really does have a knack for something.
As Buffon said it himself… “13 pounds of drugs? Doesn’t surprise me, he already had them in 2002, but back then they were in his stomach”.
Owh and when it comes to the other guy, Gamal Al-Ghandour, investigations showed he most likely received a new car for his efforts, though to be fair it didn’t come solely from south korea, it came from FIFA as well, remember when I said the vice president was korean, yeah it came from that guy.
He denied the allegations, but the fact is, before all of that he had an incredible career… but after that he suddenly retired, not suspicious at all.
It’s now been 20 years, people still talk about this whole story and time has proven there is a reason for that.
Ever since 2002, no Asian team has ever made it past the last 16 rounds, let alone nearly making the podium and FIFA, well I could get into it but let’s just say time has shown Mr. Blatter wasn’t as high and mighty as he made us all think.