Long Reads

Was the 2002 World Cup rigged?


Brazil’s Ronaldo, center, is well marked by Belgium’s Marc Wilmots (7), Timmy Simons (6) and Yves Vanderhaeghe (18) during the 2002 World Cup second round soccer match between Belgium and Brazil at the Kobe Stadium, Japan Monday June 17, 2002. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

The summer of 2002 was set to be a glorious time for football fans all over the world. And it was all because of a glorious upcoming World Cup tournament, with glorious teams, glorious players, and glorious kits, among countless other reasons to smile.

It was also a World Cup of firsts; the first to be held in Asia, the first to be held outside of Europea or the Americas, and the first to be jointly-hosted by more than one nation, as South Korea and Japan came together to stage the world-famous event. Moreover, it was also a first for a handful of nations, with Slovenia, Ecuador, Senegal and China all making their debuts in the competition.

But was it all part of something much bigger? Was all the glitz and glam simply a facade for the elite few pulling the strings behind the scenes? Many fans, players, coaches and officials certainly think this was the case. Whether or not their claims have any substance behind them is another matter entirely, but just what were they complaining about in the first place?

Allegations of foul play

To cut a long story short, it was the referees who many claim stole the show in Eastern Asia. The iconic tournament, as always, played host to several shocks, with defending champions France inexplicably finishing bottom of Group A without a single win or even a single goal to their name. Argentina were the other heavyweights to fall at the first hurdle, narrowly missing out on a place in the knockout rounds thanks to superior displays from Sweden and England.

But somehow none of that made headlines throughout the tournament and indeed once it was drawn to a close, with South Korea’s controversial journey to the semi-finals dominating the limelight as the Red Devils overcame footballing giants Spain, Italy and Portugal on their way to the last four. Media attention in South Korea unsurprisingly focused on their nation’s achievements, with the country becoming the first from outside of the Americas and Europe to reach that stage of the competition.

But closer to home and indeed throughout the world, the football press, fans, and those in charge of their respective nations were not a happy bunch. Even the last-ever opportunity to witness the magnificent golden goal rule on the world stage sadly wasn’t much to write home about. And that was all because of the manner in which the host nation found their way to the semi-finals.

Tensions rising

There were certainly no complaints surrounding the presence of Japan and South Korea at the tournament, with both qualifying automatically as co-hosts. Both then served up a storm in their respective groups, with the former finishing ahead of Belgium, Russia and Tunisia, while the latter sat atop a table comprising USA, Portugal and Poland. Both picked up their first-ever World Cup victories in the process, but it was here that South Korea also began to gain some negative attention for the manner of their win over Portugal, with allegations of corruption slowly creeping to the surface.

Unfortunately for Japan, the round of 16 saw their journey come to an end, with the Samurai Blue narrowly losing 1-0 to Turkey. Pierluigi Collina kept a low profile in that one, but the same cannot be said for the now-infamous Byron Moreno, who was the man in the middle for South Korea’s meeting with Italy on the same day.

An unforgettable evening in Daejeon

The ill-tempered encounter ended in nine yellow cards, with two of those going to the legendary Francesco Totti, whose supposed dive led to a second bookable offence in extra-time. But Moreno’s worst offence came just moments before, when he ruled out a perfectly legitimate Damiano Tommasi goal for offside. To infuriate all of Italy further, South Korea star Ahn Jung-hwan ended the game with a winning strike three minutes from time, with the match having finished 1-1 in normal time.

Italy manager Giovanni Trapattoni was the first to claim foul play, with many of his fellow countrymen branding the referee a disgrace for his dealing of both minor and major incidents throughout the match. But FIFA President Sepp Blatter saw it as a lack of assistance from the linesmen, with the wily character doing his best to dodge the matter entirely.

FIFA’s defence may lie in the fact that the host’s chances of victory were perhaps higher than normal as their opponents were missing star defenders Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, but such a stance doesn’t stand too tall when Moreno was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for drug trafficking charges nine years later.

Four days later…

Incredibly, more of the same unfolded in South Korea’s quarter-final meeting with Spain, where Egyptian Gamal Al-Ghandour was the man with the whistle. He was quickly criticised for his failure to clamp down on a number of ugly challenges, as well as two Spanish goals that were controversially given offside. Allegations claimed that the now-disgraced former FIFA man Jack Warner designated the referee for the game, which ended in a penalty shootout victory for the hosts.

Their dream run finally came to an end at the hands of Germany in the semi-final, with Michael Ballack netting the only goal of the game to break South Korean hearts. And their story ended with further pain, ending up on the wrong end of a five-goal thriller against Turkey in the third-place play-off. That brought an end to the on-pitch mayhem, but issues and allegations continued off the pitch in the years that followed.

Time to move on?

So while the 2002 edition of the famous competition will undoubtedly be remembered for the original Ronaldo tearing defences apart – with the young striker netting eight goals to guide his nation to a record fifth World Cup – it will also be remembered by the cynics as a case of horrific, shambolic and shameful refereeing, and whether or not there was something much bigger at play.

The fact that South Korea have been some way off achieving similar feats ever since has certainly raised eyebrows, but the likes of Greece and even Portugal can testify against such an argument, the former lifting the Euro 2004 trophy aloft in an extraordinary shock, with the latter overcoming all the odds to clinch Euro 2016.

That is to say, then, that shocks and surprises can pop up unannounced in all walks of life, and particularly in sport, which is indeed why we love the beautiful game so much. But this was no one-off, with South Korea nervously shifting their way to the last four of the biggest competition on the planet.

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