16 years ago South Korea stunned the world at the 2002 World Cup as the Taeguk Warriors secured a semi-final berth in the tournament. It was a first for an Asian team and brought the nation fame while dispelling any notions that a team from Asia can’t compete with top European and South American sides on the world stage. Korea had some fantastic players in that tournament and one of them was Ahn Jung Hwan.
The attacking midfielder’s antic s played a huge part in his team excelling at the tournament. Before Park-Ji Sung became the face of Korean football, Ahn was his nation’s golden boy and talisman. Nicknamed the undisputed Lord of the Ring, thanks to the midfielder constantly kissing his wedding-ring upon each and every goal celebration, Ahn earned himself a prestigious loan switch to Perugia after displaying some impressive goal-scoring form amid his native homeland of South Korea.
However he struggled in Europe and was subjected to racist slurs most notably from then Perugia captain Marco Materazzi . As the 2002 World Cup approached Ahn wasn’t in the best of shape but Dutch tactician Guus Hiddink decided to persevere with him and what a decision that turned out to be. Described as lazy at times, Ahn was anything but that at the tournament especially with the captain’s armband strapped to his body. He successfully registered himself on the score-sheet with a well-taken finish against the USA but it would be in the knock-out stages that his star would truly shine.
After the group stages the Koreans came up against an Italian team filled with stars but nonetheless remained confident of their chances. Although the Azzurri took the lead first and with Ahn missing a penalty in the early stages, the hosts however soon found an equaliser late into the game to force extra-time. As the game progressed , the shadow of penalties loomed large but with three minutes left in the second half of extra-time, Ahn rose high above the legendary Paolo Maldini to put a header past Gianluigi Buffon and book his team’s place in the quarter-finals.
That goal brought joy to his nation but despair for him on a personal level. The South Korean hot-shot was subsequently cast aside by Perugia later on, destined to never set foot among the Italian game again. Fans of the proud Azzurri felt somewhat betrayed by what had taken place with Perugia president Luciano Gaucci firing him only to reverse his decision but by then the damage was done. On the other hand, Korea would follow up their impressive win over Italy with a determined victory against Spain with Ahn driving his team forward. South Korea would eventually lose to Germany in the semi-finals but their impressive run had been lauded even to this day.
Ahn was now a World Cup star but ironically his career nosedived. He would venture back to the far-East where his fortunes seemingly failed to improve. Despite finally returning to Europe with both FC Metz and MSV Duisburg, the former South Korean favourite would never again reach those lofty heights that took him all the way to World Cup stardom. While Park Ji-Sung continues to achieve recognition for what he has achieved, Ahn seems to be forgotten but mention the 2002 World Cup and he will definitely be remembered for he was the star that shone the brightest for the Taeguk Warriors.