Ronaldo, Roy and hometown refereeing – revisiting the 2002 World Cup

It was the World Cup that brought football’s showpiece extravaganza to a new continent, a new frontier and a new audience, and one that perhaps more than any other, produced the greatest drama, shocks and upsets.

It all kicked off 20 years ago this week, bringing back a wave of nostalgia, with it being the first international tournament that remains vivid in the conscious memory of many ‘90s babies.

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The selection of Japan and South Korea as joint-hosts (a first) of the 2002 World Cup forms part of FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s “legacy” of taking the tournament around the globe – see South Africa, Brazil, Russia and Qatar for further evidence of this and ,of course, mass corruption.

On the field, the much-anticipated tournament sprung into life with arguably the biggest World Cup shock of all time – Senegal, in their tournament debut, upsetting the all-conquering French, World Cup and European Championship holders and favourites to repeat in Asia. This would set the tone for things, but for some countries controversy engulfed them before a ball had been kicked, most notably Ireland.

Long-simmering tensions between captain Roy Keane and manager Mick McCarthy, and the Football Association of Ireland fat cats, exploded on the then-little known island of Saipan. It resulted in Keane departing a squad he had carried to the tournament and the start of the second Irish civil war. How the tournament unfolded adds to the feeling of the biggest “What If?” in the country’s sporting history.

France never recovered from their opening game loss, tumbling out at the group stage with a whimper and without a goal. Anything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong, namely injuries to Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires pre-tournament and a red card for Thierry Henry in their second group game.

They weren’t alone in suffering an ignominious group stage exit. Argentina, a fellow tournament favourite having topped the South American qualification group by 12 points, and Portugal, boasting the much-vaunted “Golden Generation” of Luis Figo, Rui Costa et al., also failed to progress to the knock-out stages. The Argentinians went out of a so-called “Group of Death” featuring England, Sweden and Nigeria, and far more embarrassingly, the Portuguese lost to both USA and South Korea.

At least they made the finals, unlike the Netherlands who were victims of Roy Keane’s last major tour de force performance at international level in qualification.

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England’s tournament was dominated by the two Davids – Seaman and Beckham (obviously). Seven weeks prior to their opening group game, injury struck down Becks, ending his domestic season and putting his World Cup participation in jeopardy. It also introduced the word metatarsal to most of the nation’s vernacular. The same injury ruled out Gary Neville but much to the relief of the English, it did not for their skipper, although it’s debateable if he was fully fit.

Two games against South American’s best would define their summer – a 1-0 win over Argentina in the groups, with Beckham exacting revenge on Diego Simeone for his role in his red card four years earlier, and a quarter-final exit to Brazil, where he jumped out of a tackle that led to a Rivaldo equaliser. Seaman was then caught out from a Ronaldinho free-kick – shot or cross, who knows? Regardless, tears did flow from the pony-tailed veteran shot-stopper. Rather quirkily, Danny Mills and Trevor Sinclair were prominent throughout the tournament, a result of injury and the oft-mentioned left-sided midfield problem that plagued the Three Lions during this era.

What about the hosts? South Korea added the scalps of Italy and Spain to the Portuguese in highly-contentious last-16 and quarter-final ties respectively. A questionable disallowed goal and a second yellow for diving for Francesco Totti when a penalty seemed obvious led to (rather ironic) conspiracy calls from the Italians, especially when Ahn Jung-hwan, then of Serie A side Perugia, headed in a golden goal winner in extra-time. How did his club’s chairman handle the loss? By terminating his contract and stating he’d never set foot in the city again. Gracious.

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It was a similar story for the Spaniards – two disallowed goals and a series of dubious offside calls being made en route to a penalty shoot-out loss to Guus Hiddink’s men. The Spanish had bested the Irish in the previous round in the same fashion.

As for Japan, at their first-ever World Cup, the group stages were successfully navigated before falling to Turkey at the round of 16.

Another surprise outfit, the Turks joined the South Koreans in the semi-finals. Facing off against the two presumed minnows were the two most successful countries in World Cup history but sides that were not hotly tipped in the build-up to the tournament, Germany and Brazil.

Germany were in the midst of a national footballing crisis, having lost all three group games at EURO 2000 and their conveyor belt of talent slowing down rapidly. EURO 2004 would also see a group exit, so this World Cup can be seen as an outlier prior to a widespread structural reboot. Three players were largely responsible for the Germans’ somewhat uninspiring run to the final – Oliver Kahn: the best keeper in the world at the time, Miroslav Klose: at the start of his World Cup goals record journey, and Michael Ballack: the talismanic midfielder who was cruelly suspended for the final having scored the goal versus South Korea to get them there.

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Brazil on the other hand had all the talent but had struggled in qualification and somewhat stumbled into the tournament. The major question centred around the form and fitness of Ronaldo, R9, once the most feared footballer on the planet but who had been beset by horrific injury luck in the previous four seasons. The answer was emphatic: eight goals and the formation of the “3 Rs”, possibly the greatest front three in international football history – Rivaldo: remembered as much for feigning injury to get a Turk sent off in the groups as his sumptuous play, and Ronaldinho: the soon-to-be best player in the world.

Ronaldo knocked off Turkey, and the war-painted Rüştü Reçber in nets, in the semi-final before a double past Oliver Kahn in the final sealed a fifth World Cup for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side. More than that, and the iconic haircut he sported, it was a story of personal redemption for Ronaldo, whose career began to spiral downwards after the 1998 final, where rumours of a pre-game seizure swirled. In a World Cup filled with giant-killings, its greatest moment was the restoration of one of the game’s true giants to the near peak of his powers and the peak of the sport.

Twenty years on, the stench of corruption that first permeated around the awarding of tournaments at this time is more pungent than ever. Qatar is unlikely to be talked about with any great fondness at any point, let alone two decades later. Guess nostalgia is all we have for the next while.

The Author

Peter Fitzpatrick

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