TAEJON, South Korea — A sudden-death goal by Ahn Jung Hwan propelled South Korea into the quarterfinals of the World Cup here Tuesday night, a well-earned 2-1 victory over Italy setting off incredible scenes of celebration.
In front of 38,588 fans here — and millions more across the country — South Korea left it late to find an equalizer in regulation time, but the ultimate victory was greeted by utter adulation in and around the stadium. Men, women and children cried openly as their heroes did a lap of honor.
South Korean coach Guus Hiddink said: “I’m very, very happy, I’m very satisfied. (Italy) are one of the superpowers of football. I think this is unique what the Korean players have done so far.”
But Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni said his team deserved to win. “This is football, but if one of the teams should have advanced to the quarterfinals it should have been Italy. We had more goal chances,” Trapattoni said. “Korea played with their hearts,” he added.
South Korea’s approach was clear from the start — and it was the same tactic that had worked so effectively against Portugal in its previous match: Full on commitment, harry, hassle and break quickly.
And, as usual, the Koreans were backed by their fanatical fans. At one end of the stadium, a vast banner read “Welcome to Azzuri’s Tomb” and cards held up by the crowd read “Again 1966” in reference to North Korea’s historic win over Italy at the World Cup in England.
But if ever a game came close to being lost before five minutes were on the clock, this was it. Italy’s Francesco Coco was booked for bringing down Park Ji Sung as the Korean winger outpaced him down the right; from the free-kick, Christian Panucci wrestled Seol Ki Hyeon to the ground and the stadium erupted as referee Byron Moreno whistled for a penalty.
Ahn’s spot kick, however, was well saved by Gianluigi Buffon, who guessed right and got his body behind the ball. South Korea’s perfect start had suddenly gone bad and Italy began to assert themselves.
In the 10th minute, Christian Vieri served warning by shooting just wide of Lee Woon Jae’s left post after racing into the box down the left channel and six minutes later the same player took advantage of some lax marking at a corner to head home from a corner. The combined efforts of Song Chong Gug, Choi Jin Cheul and Lee were unable to counteract his powerful run inside the box and they could only watch as the ball shot past them into the top corner.
Italy was content to play the ball around in the midfield for a while, frustrating South Korea’s attempts to get meaningful attacks under way, and it was putting in a far improved performance than the limp showings against Mexico and Croatia in the previous round.
In South Korea’s best opportunity of the half, Seol turned Mark Iuliano beautifully in the Italian penalty box, but was only able to shoot high. At the other end, a through ball from Francesco Totti allowed Damiano Tommasi a snap shot, but his effort was saved point blank by Lee and the rebound was cleared by Choi as it span toward the goal-line.
As the half drew to a close, Coco received treatment for a nasty looking gash to the side of his head and later returned to the field swathed in a bandage.
South Korea started the second half much more positively, taking the fight to the Italians and unsettling a defense missing the injured Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, who was suspended.
In the 60th minute, Cristiano Zanetti was booked after a foul on the edge of the penalty area, but Ahn was only able to blast the indirect free-kick over Buffon’s bar. Guus Hiddink, the South Korean manager, took a gamble shortly afterward, taking off defender Kim Tae Young and replacing him with striker Hwang Sun Hong and, with just 20 minutes left, swapping midfielder Kim Nam Il for another striker, Lee Chun Soo.
In the 73rd minute, Vieri raced clear onto a ball played from the Italian backline, but his shot was well wide of Lee’s goal before another powerful run by the Inter Milan striker ended with his shot being deflected over.
Other than a scramble in the six-meter box that South Korea was unable to profit from, the Italians were content to keep the home side at arm’s length, the South Korean attacks becoming less cohesive the longer the game wore on. Passes went astray and tackles were that much less well timed as the Azzuri played out time with possession games by the touchline and in midfield.
And then, just when they thought they had the game won, it all went horribly wrong for the Italians.
With two minutes to play, a ball chipped into the box was missed by one Italian defender, fell to Panucci — who clearly was not expecting it and fell trying to clear his lines — only for Seol to take it off his toe and in one movement drill it past Panucci.
The remainder of the half saw more genuine scoring opportunities than the preceding 43 minutes; Vieri blazed over from a left wing cross that he should have done better with, substitute Cha Du Ri’s bicycle kick was held by Buffon and then Seol drove into the side netting after finding space on the left.
After leaving it very late to come back from the dead, the South Koreans set about yet another team that had apparently written them off as contenders, spending much of the first period of extra time camped in Italy’s half. In the 11th minute, a free-kick just outside the Italian box by Hwang was creeping inside Buffon’s bottom left corner until he got down to it and then Totti was shown a red card for looking for a penalty at the other end.
Hwang then let another opportunity get away from him, opting to head a cross from the left when he was unmarked instead of taking his time and placing it past Buffon. Lee did well to deflect another shot over at the other end, but then up stepped Ahn with quite possibly the most important goal of his life.
With four minutes left until the penalty shootout, the live-wire striker’s header looped over Buffon and settled into the back of the net, leaving the Italian players on their knees and South Korea celebrating the biggest soccer victory in its history.
And like the banner said, Taejon was to be Italy’s tomb after all.