The goal that made me: Ahn Jung-hwan remembers moment that defined career
Tuesday marked exactly 20 years since the opening of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, the global festival of football that saw support for the Korean national team reach fever pitch across the country.
The Korean squad that competed at the 2002 World Cup are still held up as heroes today. One of the most famous members of that historic squad, Ahn Jung-hwan scored the winning goal against Italy in a round of 16 clash that carried Korea through to the country's first ever quarterfinals.
Ahn also scored during Korea’s group stage match against the United States in 2002, and in a group stage match against Togo at the 2006 World Cup.
Those three goals make Ahn Korea's all-time World Cup top scorer, an honor he shares with Park Ji-sung and Son Heung-min.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the 2002 World Cup, the Korea Football Association is currently holding a celebratory "Football Week." Getting in the spirit of things, the JoongAng Ilbo sat down with Ahn to discuss his memories of the World Cup.
"2002 was the happiest time of my footballing career,” said Ahn. “It was also when I was loved the most. I remember there were so many fans waiting that I couldn't go outside."
After a difficult childhood, Ahn first started playing football because the players were given milk and bread to eat.
That rough start didn't hold Ahn back. He started his footballing career in 1998 with Busan IPark, then the Busan Icons, where he played 54 matches and scored 27 points. He was named K League MVP in the 1999 season, scoring 14 goals and marking the first time that a K League MVP was chosen from a club that didn't top the table.
In 2000, Ahn was loaned to Italian club A.C. Perugia and became the first Korean ever to play in the Italian Serie A. Two years later, he was called up to the national football squad by head coach Guus Hiddink.
"I hated losing,” Ahn recalled. “I also did not like to compare myself to others. Hiddink really brought out my ability by stimulating and motivating me. He told me personally that this World Cup will change my life, which it did.”
In the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, Korea faced Italy, a team with some of the biggest players of the time like Christian Vieri, Francesco Totti, and Paolo Maldini.
"I didn't think we could beat Italy, which was a team made up of world stars,” said Ahn. “But I played for my life, and it worked. That’s football. It's not football if the stronger team beats the weaker team all the time. That's probably why people are crazy about it."
The day of the match against Italy, Ahn ended up scoring the winning goal in extra time — until 2002, FIFA still followed the golden goal rule at World Cups — leading the Taeguk Warriors to an immediate 2-1 victory and a ticket to the quarterfinals.
But that victory cost Ahn personally. He was vilified by Italian fans, with A.C. Perugia Chairman Luciano Gaucci announcing that Ahn would be fired for insulting the Italian nation. Gaucci's announcement, which definitely would have broken a host of FIFA regulations, turned out to be a publicity stunt as Ahn's contract was completed anyway, but he still remained persona non grata in Italy.
"After the World Cup, my wife went back to Italy to find that someone had smashed my Mercedes. The local newspaper even said the mafia were threatening to kill me. It was almost like I had ended my entire football career with that one goal.”
After the 2002 World Cup, Ahn had a chance to play in the Premier League after he inked a deal with Blackburn Rovers. Perugia blocked the move, claiming contractual obligations, and attempted to scupper Ahn's career by demanding $3.8 million in compensation from anyone that wanted to sign him.
Luckily, a Japanese agency was willing to pay up, and Ahn landed at Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse from 2002 to 2003. Had he been allowed to move to Blackburn, he would have been the first Korean to play in the Premier League. Instead that honor went to teammate and friend Park, who joined Manchester United in 2005.
"Yes, my life could have been different if I had played in the Premier League,” Ahn said after a long silence. “But a lot of people have told me that they were very happy because I was part of the 2002 squad. I always tell them, no, you made me happy. I think that $3.8 million is the price I paid for the respect and love I have received from the people.
"I am proud of Korean football. I can say that I gained a lot of things playing for Korea but also lost a lot of things. But of course there will be bad times, some of which I have to solve on my own. I can say that I have given everything that I can for Korean football.”
Ahead of the 2006 World Cup, Ahn had a chance to join a La Liga club, but instead chose to play for German side MSV Duisburg.
“The national team staff advised me it was better to play in Germany in preparation of the 2006 World Cup,” Ahn said. “The salary was much smaller with less benefits, but I was able to lead the Taeguk Warriors to our first win away by scoring against Togo. So, I don’t have regrets.”
After three World Cups and 71 national team appearances, Ahn retired in 2012 and has been a commentator and entertainer. At the 2022 Qatar World Cup draw in March, Ahn was caught on camera nervously awaiting the draw for Group E, which included two strong contenders Spain and Germany. Japan ended up in Group E while Korea landed in Group H alongside Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana.
“I was praying that Korea would not be placed in Group E,” said Ahn. “It’s realistically harder to reach the round of 16 if the group is more competitive. Group H is obviously tough but there’s still hope.”
The 2022 Qatar World Cup will kick off on Nov. 21 in Doha, where Ahn will be working as a commentator. Korea's first game against Uruguay is on Nov. 24. Korea will then face Ghana on Nov. 28, before rounding out the group stage with a game against Portugal on Dec. 2.
BY PARK RIN, YUN SO-HYANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]