By Jon Hills
It’s ironic that in a World Cup remembered for shocks and upsets, the two most successful teams in the history of the competition will contest the final.
Only one final since 1950 has not featured either one of these two giants of international football. But even if the final fails to live up to expectations this World Cup has still delivered its fair share of magical moments.
South Korea’s irresistible march to the semi-finals, Turkey’s emergence as a new European power, Ronaldo’s return to greatness after four years of injuries, and David Beckham’s emotional revenge against Argentina – will all be replayed and recalled for many years to come.
The stunning performances of the hosts has been the most celebrated achievement and deservedly so. Having failed to win any of their previous matches in the World Cup, South Korea broke their duck against Poland in their opening group game, comfortably winning 2-0.
The Koreans used that win as a springboard for their campaign and made it all the way to the semi-finals, humiliated Italy and Spain along the way and ensured that the attention of the world would be on their small but intensely proud nation.
A fewmonths ago it is unlikely that sweeper Hong Myong Bo would have been mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Alessandro Nesta and Marcel Desailly, but all that has changed now.
Japan didn’t progress as far, but still made a huge impression. Arsenal’s forgotten man Junichi Inamoto starred as the co-hosts won their group and generated unprecedented enthusiasm. Turkey ended their dream in the second round, but the Japanese can be proud of what they have achieved.
And then there were the shocks. The opening game of Group A served ample warning of what was to come. France – with a squad packed full of millionaire veteran 30-somethings – succumbed 1-0 to the youthful exuberance of Senegal in front of a disbelieving crowd in Seoul.
France were to slip out of the tournament without a win or a goal, something unthinkable only a few weeks earlier. Coach Roger Lemerre packed his bags and his successor must dismantle an aging side and rebuild for the future – hardly an enticing prospect.
Co-favourites Argentina were another of the fancied teams who failed to make it beyond the first phase. Miguel Bielsa took veterans Gabriel Batistuta, Claudio Caniggia and Diego Simeone to the far-east and left some outstanding and hungry young talent at home.
The likes of Javier Saviola, Juan Riquelme and Andres D’Alessandro were left twiddling their thumbs in Buenos Aires as Juan Veron & co. narrowly beat Nigeria, lost to a David Beckham-inspired England in their next game, and then failed to beat Sweden in their final group match.
The demise of aging, wealthy European-based players was further illustrated by Portugal’s early exit from Group D. The so called ‘golden generation’ of Luis Figo and Rui Costa were humbled 3-2 by the USA, recovered to beat Poland 4-0, but then went down 1-0 to South Korea and were eliminated.
The Portugese – as wasthe case in Euro 2000 – will be remembered for their ill-discipline; having two men sent off in the match against the co-hosts and one of them – Joao Pinto – banned indefinitely for allegedly punching the referee.
Meanwhile, two traditional powers who had supposedly been in decline after poor performances in the qualifying phase were keen to silence their critics.
Brazil scored 11 goals in their first phase matches and entertained in typically flamboyant style, with Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho in spectacular form. Ronaldinho’s winner against England in the quarter-final – a 45 yard free kick – will not be quickly forgotten, especially by England’s unfortunate goalkeeper David Seaman. And Ronaldo showed his injury worries were behind him by scoring 6 goals en route to thefinal.
Germany – boosted by a rampant 8-0 victory in their opening group game against Saudi Arabia – also proved they could nolonger be dismissed as a spent force.
Bolstered by the introduction of younger players such as Christoph Metzelder, Miroslav Klose and Torsten Frings, Rudi Voller’s team methodically ploughed a route to the final, rarely entertaining but eliciting a grudging appreciation from many observers.
Michael Ballack’s courage and determination in scoring the winner against South Korea after being booked – and therefore knowing he’d be missing the final – gave come indication of the metality within the squad. And Oliver Kahn surely claimed the title of the world’s best goalkeeper by only conceding one goal en route to the final while making some spectacular saves along the way.
Senegal met Turkey in the quarter-finals and it was shame that only one of them could progress. Senegal had stunned the world by beating the French in the opening game, but then proved it was no flash in the pan by drawing with Denmark and Uruguay and beating the Swedes in the second round. Moreover, Liverpool new-boy Salif Diao’s strike against Denmark was a contender for goal of the tournament.
The Turks continued their recent rapid improvement with a fine showing, narrowly losing to Brazil in the semi-finals. Keeper Rustu was in inspirational form, Alpay was a rock in central defence, and the performances of live-wire forward Hasan Sas attracted the attention of several big European clubs.
Then there were the referees. Spain and Italy screamed conspiracy after their defeats at the hands of South Korea in the knock-out stages. FIFA reacted to criticism of match officials by calling up experienced referees for the semi-finals and final, but their belated response merely served to underline the importance of appointing experienced officials for matches of this magnitude.
Despite the Italian and Spanish protestations, no-one is seriously suggesting that officials were bribed or conspired to ensure the South Koreans progressed, but FIFA surely have to re-evaluate their policy of allowing inexperienced officials to take charge of important matches.
The biggest disappointment of the tournament has to be the below-par performances of so many big names. David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane were recovering from injuries, but the likes of JuanVeron, Luis Figo, Patrick Vieira and Francesco Totti can have no such excuse. The poor performances of so many leading players has led to real concern about the role of the playmaker, with the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Sven Goran Eriksson attributing their demise to the increasingly congested European fixture list placing unrealistic demands on players
It is certauinly true that many of the teams that flourished, relied on teamwork, organisation and althleticism rather than flair. The United States,Germany and South Korea, all fell into this category although it is too early to tell if this heralds a significant new development in the game or is merely a one-off.
Lesser known stars did emerge as household names. Ahn Jung Hwang was outstanding for South Korea, scoring a memorable golden goal winner against Italy, whileEl Hadj Diouf cemented his standing as African player of the year with some sublime skill and moments of magic.
Several players from established powers made their mark on the tournament. Rio Ferdinand was outstanding for England in defence, and Real Betis youngster Joaquin was one of Spain’s best players in the first phase. PSG’s Ronaldinho would have been unknown to most people outside France and Brazil but emerged as one of the stars of the competition, while Inter’s Emre was impressive in midfield for Turkey.
Regardless of how the final unfolds, this World Cup will be looked back upon as one of the better tournaments. Some enthralling first round games and surprise results gave the tournament a spectacular start, but the goals gradually dried up in the latter stages as the competition began to lose some of its momentum.
The successes of Senegal, South Korea and Turkey deserve to be celebrated, but are overshadowed somewhat by the dire performances of so many world class players and great teams.
The onus now is on the developing nations to maintain their progress and for the established ones to re-evaluate where they went wrong. But all in all, it’s been a memorable World Cup. And the next one is only four years around the corner.
Other memorable World Cup moments:
David Beckham calmly brushing off Diego Simeone’s attempts to unnerve him before taking his penalty against Argentina.
Four Turkish players chasing Brazil’s Denilson towards the corner flag in a fruitless attempt to get the ball during the semi-final.
Diego Forlan scoring a spectacular goal against Senegal and thus proving to Manchester United fans that he could indeed find the net.
The scenes of jubilation in South Korea following their victories over Spain and Italy.
Haircuts that could be best described as ‘unwise’: Ronaldo, Christian Zeige, David Beckham and Umit Davala being the main culprits.
Team of the Tournament (3-4-3)
Hong Myong Bo (South Korea)
Fernando Hierro (Spain)
Marcos Cafu (Brazil)
Michael Ballack (Germany)
Hasan Sas (Turkey)
Christoph Metzelder (Germany)
Khalilou Fadiga (Senegal)
El Hadji Diouf (Senegeal)