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08th Jun 2018

Why Japan and South Korea 2002 was the best World Cup ever

Simon Lloyd

In England, life is typically a bit shit for a 16-year-old boy

A former 16-year-old boy myself, I speak from experience.

You’re nearly a proper grown-up, and that’s the most frustrating part. In theory, you can pretty much do all the things proper grown-ups can do, except not really.

You’re old enough to have sex legally, but as much as you and your raging hormones might like that to happen, such opportunities rarely (if ever) come your way. Spots, questionable attempts to grow facial hair and applying so much supermarket’s-own hair gel that you become a walking fire hazard are all factors in why girls your age won’t look at you twice.

Even though boys only a couple of years older seem to battle some of the same aforementioned appearance issues you do, driving a fourth-hand Fiat Punto instantly makes them considerably more attractive to girls your age. While being able to drive is, on paper at least, tantalisingly close, affording lessons, a car and all the other costs that go with it makes it a distant dream.

Alcohol consumption is still illegal, but at least there are ways around that. One of your mates will have an older brother or an irresponsible parent willing to go in the off-licence on your behalf, and so to forget how utterly miserable being that age is, you find yourself wasting away your Friday and Saturday nights drinking cheap white cider on a local park until you reach vomiting point.

All this considered, it’s a shitty time for you to sit a set of potentially life-defining exams…

This was the position I found myself in during the summer of 2002, only it was even more complicated. My GCSEs overlapped with the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. This, along with all the stuff mentioned above, was a recipe for disaster for my football-obsessed younger self.

Maybe the quality of football wasn’t always the best, yet that World Cup meant more to me than any other. It was a welcome distraction from the exasperation of finding myself in that awkward halfway house between childhood and adulthood, but also from trigonometry, Simon Armitage poetry and trying to get my head around past tense in German.

The first World Cup to be held in Asia, 2002 certainly felt very different to any other tournament I can remember. The stupidly early kick-off times contributed to this – drinking warm beer at 6am to watch England draw 0-0 with Nigeria still stands out – but the unprecedented passionate support of the host nations’ fans also added to its unique feel.

The internet was still relatively new and painfully slow in 2002 and social media had yet to explode. John Motson and Barry Davies were still the greatest sources of information on players you’d never heard of. Because of this, Japan and South Korea was probably the last World Cup where there was genuine mystique about some of the players and teams involved. The tournament threw up some enormous shocks right from the get-go, probably intensified by how uninformed most of us still were about football beyond our own shores.

Within an hour of finishing a Geography exam, I watched the opening game in a local pub whose landlord at the time turned a blind eye to underage drinking. Senegal beat reigning champions France. I didn’t have clue who Papa Bouba Diop was… I probably didn’t even know where Senegal was (ironic, given the paper I’d just sat).

USA beat Luis Figo and Rui Costa’s Portgual, Argentina and France both failed to get out of their groups. Turkey reached a semi-final, as did South Korea – memorably dumping out Italy via Ahn Jung-hwan’s golden goal and then Spain on penalties. It was, at least until the familiarity of seeing Brazil and Germany reaching the final, a World Cup where anything seemed possible.

Even alongside the many shocks, the tournament also produced a couple of other great storylines. David Beckham and his barely-healed metatarsal laying to rest the ghost of Saint-Étienne from the penalty spot against Argentina is fondly remembered by English football fans, but the main story of the tournament undoubtedly belonged to Ronaldo.

The then-Inter Milan striker had his difficulties with injuries in the four years since his seizure prior to the 1998 final in Paris. Only just passed fit for the tournament in the Far East, he finished its top scorer, responsible for both goals in the final where he was awarded man of the match. Fairytale stuff.

As it went, I did my last GCSE hours after England were knocked out by Brazil in the quarter-finals. That night was my high school leavers’ do, spent stealthily swigging whiskey from smuggled-in hip flasks and watching people sob on the dance floor to Oasis’ Stop Crying Your Heart Out. It was the end of a chapter in my life, but one I’m sure wouldn’t be anything like as memorable had it not been for what was happening in Japan and South Korea.

World Cups do this. They’re yardsticks in the lives of football fans. The four-year intervals between each one allows for things to change, both in the game but also in your own life. As a result, many of us can recall in vivid detail exactly where we were during World Cups of yesteryear, what we were doing and who we were doing it with.

The escapism they offer from the real world is also part of the reason why people care so much about them. While the 2002 tournament was in itself entertaining, the way in which it made life more enjoyable for my not-quite-adult self earned it a special place in my heart.

There really is no better distraction than a World Cup.