I had seen other World Cups played before, but the first one I significantly remember was Korea/Japan 2002. I had seen various games of USA ’94 and France ’98, but I wasn’t into soccer that much until a little later, and didn’t understand the big competitions (such as the UEFA Champions League) until 2002. This was the one that really catapulted me into the fandom that continues to this day. I was not quite fifteen at the time of its start.
This was a World Cup that was different in many ways. First, it had never been hosted by two nations. Second, a lot of powerhouse teams fell in the group stage. It was a swan song for some, a coming out party for others. It also saw the triumphant comeback of an idol who had dealt with suspicious circumstances, and the fifth star in a brilliant crown.
France came in as the defending champions. Roger Lemerre’s side had a lot of expectations in front of them, especially with what was supposed to be an easy group, with newcomers Senegal and Uruguay, who hadn’t made it in since 1986. Uruguay had advanced to the round of 16 that year, but it was best remembered for its ugly tactics. In the final group game against Scotland that year, Jose Batista set a record that still stands – the fastest red card in World Cup history, being sent off after only fifty-six seconds for a bad tackle on Gordon Strachan. The final team in that group was Denmark, who had made the quarterfinals in 1998 and was in France’s group four years earlier. But the opening match quickly proved a harbinger of things to come. Coming in without an injured Zinedine Zidane, France also had some horrible luck, hitting the post or crossbar on no fewer than three occasions. In the 30th minute of the opening match, after some sloppy defending from Youri Djorkaeff and a bad pass from Emmanuel Petit, Senegal’s Papa Bouba Diop received the ball from El Hadji Diouf. He shot, which was saved by Fabien Barthez, but the rebound was parried back to Diop, who didn’t miss a second time. And just like that, Senegal had a 1-0 lead, a lead it would hold on to. Denmark would beat Uruguay 2-1 in a game that was better than expected. Clearly, luck was not with the French in their next match, as they earned a listless 0-0 draw with Uruguay. After 25 minutes, France’s Thierry Henry was sent off, which meant that they would need a miracle against Denmark, who earned a 1-1 draw with Senegal. To try and salvage something, France rushed back Zidane, in hopes he could ignite the fire. For somebody who had scored a sublime goal in the UEFA Champions League Final barely three weeks earlier, it was one match two many. Two quick goals doomed France, and their humiliation was complete: the worst performance ever by a defending champion – one point, no goals, and last place. In the final match in Group A, arguably the best of the tournament, Senegal took a 3-0 lead by halftime, only for Uruguay to mount a furious rally, making it 3-3 with two minutes to play. Needing a win to get into the next round, Uruguay pressed for the winner, before Richard Morales narrowly missed in stoppage time. A draw was enough for Senegal, who finished second in group A behind Denmark.
Spain, who had a history of underachieving in the World Cup, came in as one of the favorites. I’m not a fan of theirs, but I do think that this was ironically their best team I’ve seen, even better than the 2010 squad that won the whole thing. Spain quickly made work of debutantes Slovenia, 3-1. South Africa and Paraguay played to an exciting draw, which would later have ramifications as the group wore on. A late equalizer from Quinton Fortune helped South Africa salvage a 2-2 draw. Spain defeated Paraguay, 3-1, and South Africa earned their first World Cup win over Slovenia, albeit in a very poor game. In the final match, South Africa took Spain to the finish, but a 56th minute goal from Raul gave Spain a perfect nine points in the group. Paraguay came in needing not only to win, but to win by at least two goals. Although Carlos Paredes was sent off within twenty-two minutes, they rallied from a 1-0 halftime deficit to earn their victory, 3-1, with Nelson Cuevas’ second goal proving the margin. Spain won the group, and while South Africa and Paraguay both had a goal differential of zero, and four points each, Paraguay advanced on the second tiebreaker, goals scored (scored six, allowed six versus five-five for South Africa).
Brazil, who had performed weakly in the ’98 finals, felt they had a lot to prove, particularly Ronaldo, who had played poorly under mysterious circumstances against France in the final four years prior. Led by Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu, and Roberto Carlos, the Brazilians were strong favorites to go far. But against Turkey, in for the first time since 1954, they fell behind right before halftime as Hasan Sas put them ahead. But Brazil’s nerve tightened, and Ronaldo leveled the score five minutes later. After Alpay Ozalan was sent off with four minutes to play, Rivaldo hit the winner within a minute. But he’s remembered for something more notorious in this match. As he prepared to take a corner during stoppage time, Hakan Unsal tapped the ball to him, hitting him on the shin. Rivaldo went down clutching his face, diving so blatantly that it’s a shock that the referee missed it. But miss it he did, and Unsal received a second yellow and was sent off. Turkey fell 2-1 and finished with nine men on the pitch. Debutantes China played against Costa Rica, but after two goals in four minutes, Bora Milutinovic was unable to save China from defeat. Milutinovic, who had coached three separate teams to the round of 16 in each of the last three World Cups (Costa Rica, United States, and Nigeria, respectively), soon found himself overmatched against Brazil, who quickly dispatched them 4-0. Just like the previous draw, it would come down to goal difference in the final game, as Costa Rica and Turkey had a 1-1 draw. Brazil would doom Costa Rica, as a 3-0 lead after thirty-eight minutes proved too much to overcome. Despite a great attacking game from both sides, Brazil won handily 5-2. Turkey was able to take second after a 3-0 win over China, who lost all three matches and scored no goals against nine.
Co-hosts South Korea came in with a chip on their shoulder. Never before had a host failed to get out of the first round. But this was clearly a different World Cup, as the Koreans dispatched Poland 2-0. In arguably the biggest upset of the tournament, the United States, who had finished dead last four years earlier, upset Portugal 3-2, going up 3-1 at halftime and surviving an own goal. American goalkeeper Brad Friedel would come up huge in the next game, and in retrospect kept their hopes alive. He saved a clutch penalty, and USA earned a 1-1 draw with South Korea. Controversially, when Ahn Jung-hwan scored the equalizer, he celebrated by miming a speed skater, a reference to the controversial disqualification in the Winter Olympics several months earlier that handed the gold medal to Apolo Ohno. Portugal kept their hopes alive with a 4-0 win against Portugal. Pauleta landed a hat trick in that game. With Poland eliminated, they took a shock 2-0 lead on the U.S. in the final game, and the Americans began to panic. But the South Koreans had some luck – and controversy – on their side. Not for the first or last time, South Korea would be the benefactor of several questionable calls. Not to take away from the great side they had, though. Portugal had two players sent off, and after Beto was ejected in the 66th minute, Park Ji-Sung hit the winner for South Korea. The USA lost 3-1 in the other game, but despite a -1 goal differential, it was enough to get them through. They would play in the round of sixteen, and Korea won the group.
For all of their previous prowess, this was considered one of the weakest German teams ever in the World Cup. Fortunately, they had a beneficial draw, and they showed their prowess in a thrashing of Saudi Arabia, 8-0. Six of the eight goals came from headers. It was a sign of things to come for Saudi Arabia. Cameroon and Ireland played to a 1-1 draw. For Ireland, it was a morale boost after captain Roy Keane was sent home after an argument with manager Mick McCarthy (Slovenia’s Zlatko Zahovic was also sent home after the first group game against Spain after an argument with his manager, Srecko Katanec). In their next match, Germany were on the verge of victory when Robbie Keane (no relation) hit an equalizer to keep Irish hopes alive. Cameroon had a chance to progress after beating Saudi Arabia 1-0, with Samuel Eto’o scoring the winner. In the final group game, Germany beat Cameroon 2-0, but this game is mostly remembered for a compulsive referee from Spain, Antonio Lopez Nieto. A record sixteen yellow cards were issued, including two reds, on a night when the conditions in Shizuoka were rainy and slippery. Ireland, needing to win by two clear goal, got their win with goals from Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, and Gary Breen. Ireland had scraped through.
Only nine goals were scored in this group, which quickly became the Group of Death. Sweden had finished third in USA 94 but failed to qualify four year later. They played England to a 1-1 draw, in a match where neither side were at their best. Argentina, probably the group favorite, ended up winning 1-0 over Nigeria, but it was unconvincing with Gabriel Batistuta’s goal coming with less than thirty minutes to go. Nigeria, who had made the round of sixteen in each of the last two World Cups, were eliminated in the first round as they fell 2-1 to Sweden, although a Julius Aghahowa goal gave them a lead. But Henrik Larsson scored twice, including once from the penalty spot, to give Sweden the victory they needed. In the most high-profile game of the group stages and perhaps the whole Cup, the old rivals Argentina and England played each other. Four years prior, David Beckham had been sent off for a bad challenge on Diego Simeone. Many of England’s supporters hung him in effigy. But after Michael Owen won a penalty (which may have been a dive, to be honest), Beckham won back the heart of his countrymen, giving them a clutch goal from the penalty spot. It was enough to upset Argentina 1-0. Now in a “win or bust” mentality, Argentina went into full fledged panic mode, and heart were broken when Anders Svensson scored after 59 minutes. A Hernan Crespo goal gave them hope, but it proved too little too late. Another big team went home before the knockout stages. With England unsure of advancing, they played Nigeria in the searing 94-degree heat of Osaka. It ended 0-0, and both teams earned a point and earned a measure of respect. Sweden won the group by virtue of more goals scored.
This was a tough group, with Mexico beating Croatia 1-0 on a Cuauhtemoc Blanco penalty on the hour mark. Croatia, who had finished third in France, managed to save face by beating Italy 2-1 under very controversial circumstances. At least two Italian goals were disallowed for offsides, according to rumors. Italy had beaten Ecuador 2-0 with Christian Vieri scoring twice inside the half-hour. With the group wide open, Ecuador earned their first points with a 1-0 win against Croatia, who needed a win to give themselves a chance. A 1-1 draw was enough to earn Italy second place, with Mexico taking first.
Japan, the other co-host, managed a 2-2 draw with Belgium in a very good game. Marc Wilmots scored first, but Japan leveled within through minutes through Takayuki Suzuki. After Junichi Inamoto gave Japan the lead, it looked that it would be enough. But with fifteen minutes left, Peter Vanderheyden hit the equalizer. It was the only international goal that he would score, but it was a big one. Russia beat Tunisia 2-0 to take the group lead. Belgium made it five consecutive draws with a 1-1 uninspiring draw with Tunisia, with both goals coming within seventeen minutes. Japan moved into the lead with a second goal by Inamoto. In the final game of what was one of the weaker groups, Belgium turned on the gas against Russia, needing a win to advance. Playing their hearts out, Johan Walem hit a free kick to give the Belgians an early lead. After Vladimir Beschastnykh equalized on 52′, Belgium re-took the lead with twelve minutes to go, when Wesley Sonck beat Ruslan Nigmatullin. There’s an image of a magazine I have that shows Sonck doing a cartwheel. Wilmots scored four minutes later to make him the all-time leading scorer for the Red Devils at the World Cup as of this writing. It was a needed goal, too, because Dmitri Sychev would pull one back with two minutes to go. Luckily, the Belgians held on and advanced. A comfortable 2-0 win saw Japan win the group.
Round of 16
The knockout stages started with a very drab game between Germany and Paraguay. The poorest game of the tournament ended with a late Oliver Neuville goal, and somehow, one of the worst German teams in history made it through again to the quarterfinals. After overachieving against France and Uruguay, Denmark’s luck ran out, as three goals in the first half sent England in, including one from Emile Heskey, often used as the fall guy for many of their failures. Everybody can have their day. One June 16, my fifteenth birthday, Senegal continued their magical run. In the last tournament to use the golden goal rule, Senegal received two strikes from Henri Camara, after Sweden’s best chances were ruined through a missed pass from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. I watched the Spain-Ireland game from a hotel in Cincinnati (we went to a Reds game that day- they lost, by the way). Another Robbie Keane late strike gave Ireland hope, their chances for the quarterfinals was wasted through Kevin Kilbane. Spain went on to win 3-2 on penalties. Both Belgium and the United States played the following day. Brazil were the better team, but it must be said that Belgium got incredibly unlucky. Wilmots was believed to have scored early on, but Jamaican referee Peter Prendergast disallowed it, ruling that he was pulling on Roque Junior (it was the other way around). Later, Prendergast admitted he had missed the call but couldn’t change it. Fantastic saves from Marcos couldn’t keep the Belgians in the game, and after a deflection from keeper Geert De Vlieger, Rivaldo scored at 67 minutes. Twenty minutes later, Belgium’s dream died through a Ronaldo goal. But all wasn’t lost for the Belgians – they did win the FIFA Fair Play award (fewest cumulative yellow and red cards). Hey, it’s something. Earlier that day, archrivals Mexico and the United States met each other. Despite Mexico having more shots and more time of possession, two United States goals shockingly pushed them into the quarterfinals. In the final games, co-hosts Japan had their dream end with a 1-0 defeat to Turkey. Umit Davala’s twelfth minute strike was enough. South Korea-Italy was one of the most controversial games of the Cup. Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno would later be indicted for corruption in his league matches. Italy took the lead through Vieri, but several blown calls hurt the Italians. With just over two minutes left in regulation, Seol Ki-hyeon scored the equalizer. It also must be said that Vieri missed a wide open net just a minute later. Francesco Totti was controversially sent off for diving in extra time, and with the match minutes away from penalties, Ahn put one past Gianluigi Buffon. In the aftermath, he would be fired from his club Perugia for knocking the Italians out. But what else was he supposed to do?
England and Brazil played in the first quarterfinal. The best game of the knockout stages started with a Michael Owen goal. But as the heat increased, England seemed too content to lay back, and paid the price when Rivaldo scored before halftime. Five minutes later, Ronaldinho scored off of a brilliant free kick to give Brazil a 2-1 lead. Ronaldinho was later sent off seven minutes later, rendering him out of the semifinals. It would prove to be enough, as Brazil advanced to the last four. In the U.S.’s best performance, they were denied a penalty on a Torsten Frings handball. Granted, Mexico should have been awarded one in the previous game, and that one wasn’t called, so perhaps things balanced out. Nevertheless, America outplayed the Germans, but a Michael Ballack strike was enough to send them through, despite the world writing them off.
South Korea’s controversial run continued. Spain had derided Italy’s issues in their papers, but quickly changed their tune after this game. Spain had two goals disallowed, and had several controversial offside calls go against them. After 120 minutes of scoreless football, South Korea’s nerves held and they advanced 5-3 on penalties. The final quarterfinal would be settled in the 94th minute, when Ilhan Mansiz scored the final golden goal in World Cup history to knock out Senegal, who became only the second team from Africa to make the quarterfinals.
Brazil and Turkey played a rematch of their first group stage game. It was a slow game, and Brazil didn’t have their best game, but early in the second half, Ronaldo was able to put the winner past Rustu Recber. Germany, written off before the tournament, ended South Korea’s heroic run, with Michael Ballack hitting the winner fifteen minutes from time. Unbelievably, this would be the first time that Brazil and Germany had played each other in the World Cup.
Third place match
Although many doubt the relevance of this game to this day, this was an excellent game. Hakan Sukur, whose form had previously deserted him, set a record by scoring the fastest goal in World Cup history, after only eleven seconds. South Korea leveled eight minutes later, but Turkey were up 3-1 after thirty-two minutes. A late goal gave Korea a triumphant fourth place finish, and they returned home as heroes. Surprisingly, Turkey have not returned to the World Cup since this match.
Up until this match, Oliver Kahn had been a rock in the German goal. But the one mistake he did make led to disaster. The final was played in Yokohama, and after a scoreless first half, Ronaldo pounced on a mistake by Kahn to put Brazil ahead in the 67th minute. Twelve minutes later, Brazil’s title was sealed through Ronaldo’s brace. Although Germany attempted a heroic comeback, Brazil held on to win their fifth World Cup, still the most to date. Germany would regroup and twelve years later get their coveted fourth title.
It was a fun way to celebrate the summer before starting high school. I ended up serving as co-manager of my high school soccer team; that year, they won their fifth of seven consecutive sectional titles. Although I was a freshman that year, and wasn’t officially a player, the guys took me to their hearts, and many of those friendships have lasted to this day. I’ve continued that love since then. Not only was it a tournament for upstarts, but the quality was better than expected, and still lingers on in my mind.