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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

My favourite World Cup moment: South Korea's controversial upset over Italy in 2002

Questionable calls and timely scoring helped the underdog team defeat heavy favourites in the tournament

South Korea's Ahn Jung-hwan scores the golden goal against Italy in the 2002 World Cup. Getty 
South Korea's Ahn Jung-hwan scores the golden goal against Italy in the 2002 World Cup. Getty 

Was it a miracle or just another football scandal? Sixteen years later, we may still never know – although I’m sure people have their own theories.

The 2002 World Cup was probably the first one I had seriously paid attention to despite growing up in a very football-crazed (or, as we call it, soccer) town in western Massachusetts. Even though I was supposed to root for Team USA, to be honest, my 14-year-old self wasn’t really that invested.

However, while I was curious about the powerhouse European teams (Spain, Italy, Germany), I also found myself particularly intrigued by South Korea. After all, they were one of the hosts, but I’m sure they weren’t expected to do as well as they did.

While looking back now, I realise how controversial their match against Italy really was, and the upset of knocking out one of the heavy favourites in the round of 16 has always stayed with me.

Sure, there were some questionable calls from the referee (including a second yellow card in the 103rd minute against Italy’s Francesco Totti for diving). But in the end, South Korea stepped up when it mattered the most when striker Ahn Jung-hwan scored a golden goal in the 117th minute to seal the upset in extra time.

Even more impressively, they finished fourth in the tournament despite probably having the hardest route through the rounds. They went on to beat Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals, but lost to Germany in the semis.

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Even though there are people who, still to this day, complain about the 2002 World Cup being full of scandal, I'll choose to remember it for simply the feel-good moment of watching an underdog football team do what so many people believed they couldn't – even if it's marred with controversy.

Evelyn Lau is Assistant Features Editor at The National

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