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Asian Classics: Park Hang-seo relives Korea Republic’s 2002 FIFA World Cup feat

Hanoi: Park Hang-seo’s achievements as the head coach of Vietnam have captured the imagination of the continent’s football fans and it has slipped the minds of many that he was part of the Korea Republic coaching staff in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. 

The first FIFA World Cup to be held in Asia and also the first to be co-hosted - with Korea Republic and Japan sharing the responsibility - it was a tournament that showcased the very best of Asian football.

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The icing on the cake was surely Korea Republic’s wonderful run to the semi-finals and caught up with Park as he reminisced how the East Asian sealed their place in the last with a penalty shoot-out win over Spain on this day 18 years ago.

“It’s not easy to pick out one special memory from the 2002 FIFA World Cup, because that tournament itself was a very special experience in my coaching career,” Park says. “It wasn’t just an important moment, but a happy moment."

“When I think about that World Cup, I still get emotional and happy about the experience. Overall, it has a special meaning to me and the country.”

Park was one of two assistant coaches to head coach Guus Hiddink, and expectations were high that the Dutchman would deliver the results the nation craved with Korea Republic never having advanced to the knock-out stage in their previous five appearances in the FIFA World Cup Finals.

“When Guus was first appointed as the head coach, he explained in the press conference that the Korea Republic national team will shock the world but nobody quite understood what he meant at that time.

“Because going into the 2002 World Cup, the goal was to qualify for the knockout stage, as we’ve never previously progressed past the group stage. The coaching staff and the players never fully understood what he meant.”

With a squad boasting the likes of Park Ji-sung, Ahn Jun-hwang, Choi Yong-soo and Hong Myung-bo, Korea Republic took the group stage by storm as Hiddink’s men defeated Poland 2-0 in their opener to register a first-ever win at the Finals.

An Ahn strike salvaged a 1-1 draw with the United States, before Park Ji-sung scored as Korea Republic beat Portugal 1-0 to not only seal top spot in Group D but also eliminate the Europeans.

There were plenty of reasons to celebrate as the target of qualifying for the knock-out stage had been met but with the expectation of the nation heightened, it was straight back to work for Korea Republic as three-time champions Italy were up next in the Round of 16.

Park said Hiddink knew that Italy were technically and tactically superior and focused on instilling confidence in the squad.

“We knew Italy were a world class team and their physicality and technical skills were well above our players.

“In the build-up to the match, the coaching staff focused on the mental aspect instead of giving the players technical direction. They worked with each player to boost their confidence.”

Italy were quickly in control and took the lead through Christian Vieri in the 18th minute but Korea Republic refused to give up and Seol Ki-hyeon’s 88th minute strike sent the game into extra time where drama was to unfold.

“Back in 2002, there was the Golden Goal rule. Ahn Jung-hwan, having missed a penalty earlier in the match, scored the winning goal against Italy and I believe that came from the confidence that we had instilled in the players. He was still mentally strong and kept going.

The players were drained after four highly competitive matches and Spain awaited in the quarter-finals but Hiddink, says Park, was determined Korea Republic would create more history.

“Going into the match against Spain, I didn’t know what Guus had in mind, but the Korean coaching staff had a feeling of accomplishment because we had already reached our goal.

“Our players were exhausted after the Round of 16, but they worked hard and we prepared for all eventualities, including penalty shoot-outs.”

In a packed Gwangju World Cup Stadium, Spain threw everything at the Taeguk Warriors with the Europeans twice finding the net only for their efforts to be disallowed and penalties were needed after 120 minutes failed to break the deadlock.

Hiddink decided on Hwang Sun-hong, Park Ji-sung, Seol Ki-hyeon, Ahn Jung-hwan and Hong Myung-bo as Korea Republic’s penalty takers and his confidence in them was justified as all five scored in the 5-3 shoot-out win.

“Guus selected mentally strong. I’ve got a particular story about Park Ji-sung. At that time, he was a young player and didn’t have experience shooting penalties.

“In fact, that was his first penalty goal, but coach Guus trusted him because of his strong mentality. I remember Guus always had confidence in his selection and decisions.”

The fairytale run was to end in the semi-finals as Korea Republic fell 1-0 to Germany and then suffered a 3-2 defeat to Turkey in the third-place play-off.

Korea Republic - despite having qualified for every FIFA World Cup Finals since then - have not enjoyed an extended but Park believes success is forthcoming.

“The 2002 World Cup record in Korea Republic remains the country’s best but I believe Korea Republic will achieve more in the future.”

He is also grateful for the lessons learnt from Hiddink.

“There were many different things that I learnt from Guus. To name a few, his understanding of the culture that he was working in. He respected Korea Republic, the country and the culture.

“I saw him working tirelessly trying to understand the football culture so that he could communicate and implement his tactical knowledge to the players and coaches."

“Secondly, his technical knowledge. I tried to learn and understand his approach to each game, so that I could one day use his technical abilities.”

Park, who took charge of Vietnam in late 2017, has used his experience to great effect.

“Overall, working with Guus taught me how to approach my coaching career in Vietnam, because when I first came to Vietnam, I too was a foreigner and needed to understand the country, culture and players’ response. And because I had experienced it with Guus, it has helped me with the Vietnamese national team.”

Photos: AFP

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