In Italy, we call “meteora” (meteor) a football player who lives a short period of glory before fading away, back into anonymity. The World Cup is full of such stories, of players who in some way managed to find their edge right during those 30 days, once in four years, when the whole world revolves around a foot ball. They shone on the most important stage, and then quickly turned back into regular journeymen, or even worse disappeared from the calcio che conta (“football that matters”). Like a broken spell. Like a dream from which they suddenly woke up.
Antonio Guarini takes us through a journey among the Top 10 “one-hit-wonders” in the recent history of the World Cup. Some of them helped Italy climb to the top of the world, some others recall painful memories for the Azzurri. But all share the same fascinating meteora status, all found the magic formula to sparkle and shine just when it mattered most.
They may not have been Ballon d’Or winning champions, but we are sure that these names will ring a bell or two to all football lovers.
10) Ahn Jung-Hwan, Trapattoni’s Korean Killer
Until June 18, 2002, the most infamously known (North) Korean in Italy was football striker Pak Doo-Ik, whose goal at the 1966 World Cup in England propitiated the Azzurri’s shocking elimination during the group stage. Since then, “having a Korea” has become a synonym in Italy for suffering a terrible defeat. But during the Nippo-Korean 2002 World Cup, the Italian squad coached by Giovanni Trapattoni experienced an equally painful setback, this time at the hands of the Southern part of the peninsula.
Paolo Maldini and his teammates had barely made it past the group stage, and were scheduled to face home side South Korea, trained by Guus Hiddink, in the Round of 16. Italy took an early lead with Christian Vieri, but saw the opponents equalising with Seol Ki-Hyeon. Referee Byron Moreno – “the only man with cellulite on his eyes,” as defender Alessandro Nesta eventually put it – penalized the Azzurri in multiple ways, including sending off Francesco Totti.
But when the match seemed close to a penalty shoot-out lottery, along came Ahn Jung-Hwan’s maleficent header. Golden Goal, and Italy were forced to pack and fly home. Back in the days, the Korean striker was playing right in Italy, with President Luciano Gaucci’s Perugia. The day after, Grifoni’s full-blooded chairman announced that he didn’t want to see Ahn, the scourge of Italian football, anymore…
South Korea benefited of a little more help from referees and unexpectedly reached the World Cup Semifinals. Ahn and his fellow teammates were eventually eliminated by a lone goal by Germany’s Michael Ballack, then also lost the Third Place Playoff to Turkey.
Ahn Jung-Hwan did not actually step foot in Italy again. From Perugia, he moved to Japan to play with Shimizu S-Pulse, then returned to Europe, and wore the jerseys of Metz and Duisburg. He later moved back home, and played with domestic clubs Suwon and Busan, before ending his football career in China with Dalian Shide.
Without that powerful header that beat Gianluigi Buffon, maybe he would have played in Italy for a little longer. But he would have not become a national hero in his native South Korea. Sometimes a goal can change your life. For Ahn Jung-Hwan, this is exactly what happened.
Translated by Matteo Carnevale