It surprised me when researching ahead of our upcoming magazine that the consensus seemed to be that 2002 was not a vintage tournament. Recaps were crammed with snarky comments about the refereeing quality, the lack of big name sides in the latter stages, the awkward kick off times for European viewers and the unworkable system of having two hosts. My recollection was quite different. For me, football from that era, and the names associated with it, the likes of Raul, Zidane, Del Piero, Figo and the original Ronaldo was football at its best, and the 2002 World Cup represented the era’s apex. Full of glorious upsets and electric football.
I watched the majority of it unfold from the hall at my primary school, we had a headmaster who strangely and thankfully placed a great deal of emphasis on the World Cup’s cultural significance and gave us carte blanche to drift in and out of class to catch the big moments. It was there that I witnessed the tournament’s big moments and I now recall them in a kind of nostalgic haze. I remember being truly shocked as Senegal’s El Hadji Diouf dismantled and dispatched the holders France in the opening game of the tournament, and being dazzled as an already-qualified Brazil delivered a footballing masterclass against Costa Rica.
In fact, the performances of those two sides neatly sum up what was so special about that summer, in that it was simultaneously wildly unpredictable and comfortingly stereotypical. It featured deep and unprecedented tournament runs from outside the European and South American elite, with South Korea, Senegal, Turkey and the United States all creating fantastic stories. Yet the big sides still turned up, the final while far from vintage presented a wonderfully simplistic kind of good vs. evil clash, between a flamboyant and star-studded Brazilian side and a menacing Germany team.
Both nations possessed their own unique cultural style, it was Germany before their footballing revolution, an almost cliched side, full of workmanlike figures with a typical smattering of true talent, led by the terrifying Oliver Kahn, who remains Germany’s greatest and craziest keeper (an impressive feat given it’s a pretty crowded field in both respects).
It was also a classically Brazil team, before their ignominious collapse in 2014. They played with three at the back, flying wing-backs and an attack spearheaded by the trio of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. The notion of having your own style and identity was mirrored by side’s across the tournament which helped to make it compelling viewing. Even those who failed to perform were at least true to themselves. I much preferred seeing a wonderful Dutch team net 30 times in qualifying yet narrowly miss out on the tournament than watching Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong karate kick their way to a World Cup Final appearance eight years later. At the very least it was more entertaining.
Fifteen years on from the tournament’s conclusion we have decided to give that summer of football the attention it deserves. Revelling in the moments, games and players that made the tournament so enjoyable. We also look at what in meant to the relative minnows who inspired and exceeded expectations as well as the impact it had on hosts Japan and South Korea.