This story was first featured in Issue 4: Stranger Things, which is currently available to buy here.
Scoring the winning goal for your country, deep into extra time, to knock out one of the titans of international football en-route to a World Cup Quarter Final on home soil is the stuff of fairytales. Unfortunately for Ahn Jung-hwan, his story would end up more Hans Christian Anderson than Walt Disney.
That night in Daejeon was an eventful one for Ahn. It was bound to be a historic occasion regardless of what happened on the pitch; South Korea, who had failed to win a World Cup match in their five previous tournament appearances, had claimed victories against Portugal and Poland to top their group and were faced with the then-three-time World Cup winners Italy in the first knock-out round.
Things couldn’t have started more brightly. After just four minutes, Christian Panucci decided he liked the look of Seol Ki-Hyeon’s shirt so much that he tried to tear it from his back as a corner was delivered. The ref barely hesitated and gave the penalty.
All that stood between Ahn Jung-hwan and a crucial 1-0 lead for his country was twelve yards and Gianluigi Buffon – the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and one of the finest players to ever don the gloves. No pressure then.
Ahn inhaled deeply – as did the 42,000 supporters in attendance – puffed out his cheeks and struck his penalty low to Buffon’s right… and Gigi parried the ball round the post and out for a corner. It was a devastating blow, both to the host nation’s hopes of progression and to the confidence of a player making his second start of the competition. Ahn had previously made cameos off the bench in South Korea’s opening games and, after his glancing header had clinched a valuable point against the USA, he’d been given the chance from the start against Portugal in the final fixture of the group stage. An impressive performance there had earned him a starting role in this crucial match against the Italians. With less than five minutes on the clock, it seemed like he’d blown his opportunity.
It got worse. Fifteen minutes later, Christian Vieri did his best to split the back of a net as he torpedoed a cross in with his forehead to put his side 1-0 in front. Giving Italy a lead to hold onto in knockout tournament football is the last thing you want to do, and the game descended into a brutal affair late on, scything challenges and stray elbows being thrown as South Korea’s desperation to equalise was matched only by the Italians’ desperation to keep a clean sheet.
The Azzurri retained that lead, soaking up wave after wave of attack until the Italian sponge became saturated and couldn’t absorb anymore. As time ebbed away, Panucci and Seol tangled once again; the defender stumbled and flailed and his failed clearance dropped to the Korean forward, who gleefully bobbled a left-footed strike into the bottom corner. The Italian’s resistance was broken and the match headed into extra time.
From there, an ill-tempered game that had simmered and bubbled eventually boiled over thanks to a series of interventions from the Ecuadorian referee. The first period of extra time was coming to a close when Francesco Totti collected the ball with his back to goal about twenty yards out. He pirouetted, surged into the box, and was bearing down on goal when Song Chung-Gug stepped across him. Both players tumbled to the ground in a mass of sprawling limbs and the referee blew his whistle. To the disbelief of almost everyone, the official brandished a red card for Totti. The striker was deemed to have taken a dive and was booked for simulation, which, coupled with the yellow card he picked up early in the match, meant Italy had to play the remainder of the game a man light.
The Italian players were incensed and so, too, was their manager. In a display of pure frustration, Trapattoni thumped the Perspex glass of his dugout. A replay revealed that their anger was justified – Song had managed to rake the ball with the sole of his boot, but his knee followed through to make contact with the back of Totti’s thigh. It wasn’t a penalty, but neither was it a dive.
Shortly after the restart, the referee drew the ire of the Azzurri players once again as a marginal offside decision was given in favour of the hosts. Damiano Tommasi had been unaware and proceeded to knock the ball into the empty net. When he spotted the linesman’s flag, he ruefully shook his head and gesticulated towards the referee, while Trapattoni argued vehemently with the fourth official. For the rest of the players, their indignation had turned to resignation; it just wasn’t going to be their night.
The winning goal, then, had an air of inevitability about it given the controversy that had characterised extra time. Just five minutes after Tommasi had beaten the keeper at one end, only to see it ruled out, the ball nestled into the net at the other.
Lee Young-Pyo floated an inswinging cross in from the left wing towards the back post, where it was met by the head of Ahn Jung-hwan, a head of inky black hair billowing outwards as it contacted the ball and guided it into the bottom corner of Buffon’s goal.
The goal was remarkable, not just for knocking out the Italians – immediately as Ahn’s was a golden goal, the penultimate one to ever be scored in men’s football – and securing South Korea a place in their first-ever World Cup Quarter Final, but because it involved something so rarely caught on camera that its very existence had merely been speculated: a defensive error by Paolo Maldini. Italy’s captain had allowed the Korean striker to wriggle free of his attention and, when the cross was floated in, the Milan defender failed to get off the ground to win the header, his legs turned to lead after nearly two hours of relentless defending, robbing him of his spring.
Ahn wasn’t to care, and he hurtled towards the corner flag, doing the trademark ring kissing celebration that earned him his “Lord of the Rings” sobriquet, as he allowed the adulation of the crowd and his team-mates to pour over him. From missing a penalty in the first five minutes, to scoring the winner in the last five, he’d managed to squeeze a compelling redemption arc into 120 minutes more elegantly than most Hollywood films. It was a goal that would change his career. Just not quite in the way he would have expected.
“That gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again”.
Even in print you can see the vein in Luciano Gaucci’s forehead throbbing, feel his blood pressure spiking, hear the barely contained rage in his voice. In an extraordinary and furious interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, the Perugia chairman’s thinly veiled contempt for his player was evident as he excommunicated him in public.
The gentleman in question was Ahn Jung-hwan.
Less than 24 hours after Italy had been knocked out by a Perugia player, Gaucci launched into his astonishing tirade: “He was a phenomenon only when he played against Italy. I am a nationalist and I regard such behaviour not only as an affront to Italian pride but also an offence to a country which two years ago opened its doors to him,” he told La Gazzetta, “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer.”
Amongst the expansive range of utterly bizarre occurrences in the world of football, the antics of Italian club owners are a rich subgenre unto themselves, so often providing a ridiculous counterpart to Calcio’s on-pitch sublimity. They can certainly lay a stronger claim to ruining Italian soccer than Ahn.
Take, for instance, Maurizio Zamparini. Prior to his recent announcement that he’s stepping down from his role, in his fifteen years as Palermo chairman he presided over around 40 changes of head coach – including eleven over the last two seasons which involved sacking the same manager three times last year – as well as calling Adrian Mutu a “crafty little gypsy”, stating that “the English are pirates” for trying to poach young Italian players, and threatening to castrate his players and eat their testicles in his salad if their performances didn’t improve. Then there’s Aurelio De Laurentiis, film-producer-turned-Napoli owner, who referred to Lionel Messi as “a cretin” for electing to play in the Copa America, who unveiled the surprise signing of Gökhan Inler after making him attend a press conference wearing a rubber lion mask, and who is generally renowned for his scathing rants. And that’s not even mentioning Silvio.
But even in such a competitive field, Luciano Gaucci’s misdemeanours stand out. A year after the Ahn incident, Gaucci signed Al-Saadi Gaddafi – son of former Libyan dictator Muammar – who managed just one game for the club before he received a three-month ban for substance abuse. Later that year Gaucci attempted to sign Brigit Prinz, a German women’s international, to play for the men’s team. After bankrupting the club in 2005, he spent four years in hiding in the Dominican Republic after he was given a prison sentence for tax fraud.
His treatment of Ahn Jung-hwan was perhaps his most controversial act of all, and unrivalled in its pettiness. Guus Hiddink, South Korea’s manager at the 2002 World Cup was swift to condemn the Perugia chairman, calling his reaction “childish”, and suggesting that Gaucci put his nationalism aside and have respect for other nations: “Sports means players are all playing in different countries. Do they say to Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly, they cannot score against England from the corner kick? It’s almost too ridiculous to talk about”.
Almost, but not quite. Despite how ridiculous it was, Gaucci kept talking. His apoplexy calmed somewhat, he offered a different justification for his anger, instead blaming Ahn’s comments after the game, saying they were: “offensive to me and the whole Italian nation. It has nothing to do with the goal he scored against Italy. He could have scored ten and I wouldn’t have felt offended. It was simply the comments he made. He said Korean football was superior to Italian football, when Italy is a footballing nation. We have treated him well with all our love, but his comments were offensive to me and to the whole Italian nation. I feel offended by what he said. He should respect other nations as well as his own”.
Quite what Ahn’s offending remarks were remains unclear. What is clear is that, despite Perugia manager Serse Cosmi suggesting he considered the Korean a player with “enormous potential”, Gaucci was true to his word. Ahn Jung-hwan never played for Perugia again.
It’s perhaps not as drastic or dramatic as it seems at first glance, however. Ahn had joined Perugia in 2000 on a two-year loan following a prolific spell with Busan I’Cons in the K-League. So by the time of the 2002 World Cup, his loan had expired and the Grifoni were left with a choice over whether to take up the option to sign him permanently. The decision to get rid of him was made easier by Ahn’s underperformance in Italy, as he managed a paltry five league goals across his two seasons. His task was made more difficult as he was brought into replace Perugia’s previous import from Asia, Hidetoshi Nakata, who had proven to be wildly successful in Umbria. Even after taking unrealistic expectation into account, it’s difficult to argue that Ahn had shown enough to warrant a permanent transfer.
If Gaucci’s termination of Ahn’s contract was vindicated from a footballing perspective, his behaviour towards, and vilification of, the player was far from justified and is to be condemned. Much later in his career, it was revealed that issues at Perugia had existed between player and club long before the World Cup furore. The Telegraph reported on an interview Ahn gave on a Korean chat show, where he detailed the treatment he received from Marco Materazzi and some of his other team-mates:
“He barged into the locker room one day and barked at me in front of everyone, saying that I reeked of garlic,” Ahn said. “I didn’t understand what he was saying but the translator, who was also a Korean, blushed and, at first, was too embarrassed to translate the remarks. They seldom passed the ball to me in front of goal, even if they had no way for themselves to score”.
Ahn continued his impressive performances at the World Cup, scoring the fourth penalty in the shootout victory over Spain after a 0-0 draw in the Quarter Finals, and followed that up by coming off the bench against Germany in the semi-finals as South Korea’s dream run came to an end courtesy of a Michael Ballack goal.
It wasn’t enough to secure him a move to another European club after the Perugia debacle, though. Instead Ahn spent a brief interlude playing in Japan, first for Shimizu S-Pulse and Yokohama F. Marinos, where he performed well enough to try his hand in Europe once more. His spells with Metz and MSV Duisburg were underwhelming and, after he failed to turn up a trial with Blackburn Rovers and a move to Hearts fell through, he returned to Asia, first with Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Busan IPark – his renamed first club – in his native South Korea before he retired in 2011 after a two-season stint in the Chinese Super League with Dalian Shide.
Never one to shy away from the limelight, Jung-hwan has built himself a post-football media career, thanks to a profile largely established by his goal against Italy. Even back in 2002 he was the literal poster boy of Korean football, making the most of razor sharp cheekbones and jawline you could open a tin of beans with to forge a modelling career alongside his exploits on the pitch. Since retiring, he’s done more of that, in addition to working as a commentator and as the host of the supremely cryptically named Korean TV show “Please Take Care of My Refrigerator”.
At his best, Ahn was a beautifully poised forward, the sort of player well-balanced enough to sprint across a tightrope, whose scuttling, furtive movement and intelligent positioning made him a nightmare for defenders to contend with. But he joins the long list of technically astute creative players who were unable to find the consistency required to replicate their best form on a regular basis. In truth, he failed to capitalise on the promise of his 2002 World Cup performances. But thanks to the vitriol of Luciano Gaucci, his legacy is forever cemented. Ahn Jung-hwan: the player sacked for doing his job too well.