A Korean Footballing Legend Retires: Tribute to Ahn Jung-Hwan

Ahn Jung-hwan, the vanquisher of Italy, Korea’s own Il Divin Codino (though he’d cut off his hair long before), has announced his retirement at the age of 36, having last played for the Chinese Super League side Dalian Shide.

To me, Ahn will always be remembered as the dashing, pony-tailed maverick who used to take hapless K-League defenders on merry rides as a young striker at Daewoo Royals (later the Pusan I’cons, where Jamie Cureton and Chris Marsden had short spells). Nicknamed ‘Terrius’ after a character in the manga Candy Candy for his sharp good looks, Ahn was arguably first modern pop-star footballer in Korea and was as feted in the entertainment industry as he was in stadiums, starring in a series of cosmetics commercials and marrying a former Miss Korea. More important for the Red Devils devotees, desperate for the national team to bounce back after the disastrous World Cup in 1998, were his eye-catching displays on the pitch during the early days of his career: possessing two good feet, quick movement and an almost pathological desire to beat the opposition defence all by himself and walk the ball into the net, Ahn was the most flamboyant player Korea had ever seen on its soil. A voracious ball-hogger addicted to dribbling and beating defenders almost despite himself, at times he would even be seen driving towards the corner flag with defenders in tow, the pony-tail bouncing in the slipstream and his striking face impassive in concentration, just so he could keep the ball and embark on yet another mazy run past his markers. Ahn inspired admiration and exasperation in equal measure, many observers tempering their excitement by pointing out what they perceived as selfishness and lack of end product. It was clear to all, however, that here was a new type of Korean footballer, and while his scoring record in his first stay in Korea – 27 in 54 games – was very good, it doesn’t quite tell the full tale of his sheer dominance over opponents. In a sporting culture which traditionally valued hard work and deference to senior figures, Ahn seemed to herald a less conservative, more irreverent age, and maybe, just maybe, open the door to European football for future Korean players.

The chance to test his worth on the biggest stage came in 2000, when Perugia brought Ahn over to Serie A on a year’s loan as replacement for Hidetoshi Nakata, who had joined Roma for £19m. Nakata had been a veritable phenomenon at Stadio Renato Curi for that madman owner Luciano Gaucci: an accomplished trequartista and a preternaturally calm penalty taker, not only was Nakata an important player for the team, he was also a marketing dream who attracted legions of fans from and sold countless shirts in Japan. He was the figure that can be said to have started European football’s obsession with ‘the Asian market’, and although the way his career ended was a pale shadow of its beginning, his impact should not be overlooked. Replacing him therefore was not an easy task, but the expectation in Korea was palpable: Ahn’s style of play seemed perfect for Europe, and he was clearly too good for K-League, a leviathan in a small pond. Here was the opportunity to see whether his talent would withstand the test of the most prestigious league in the world. There was also the fact that Korean football had not produced a noteworthy export since Cha Bum-Kun plied his trade in the Bundesliga in the Eighties, which contributed to the inferiority complex. But the pressure on Ahn’s shoulders was more than just a footballing one: he was stepping into the shoes of the talisman of Korea’s historical nemesis, the one country Koreans love to hate and hate to lose against. In the eyes of Italians, Ahn was Nakata-lite, a cynical attempt by Gaucci to capture the same lightning twice in another bottle. The 24-year old Ahn therefore had everything to prove, with an extremely small margin for error.

His time at Perugia was a mixed bag. After a tentative start, he finished his first season in Serie A well, scoring in a run of games and ending with four goals and two assists – all in the second half of the season – to his name. Perugia extended his loan in a complex arrangement with Pusan I’cons (which would come back to haunt Ahn, as will be explained later), but the following 2001-2 season was a disappointment, with Ahn finding the net just once in four starts. While no one could have expected him to fully replace Nakata’s firepower and creativity, what was more troubling was the complete transformation in his playing style: gone were the rampaging runs, the daredevil attitude and the hunger for the ball. Ahn had seemed so commanding and quick in K-League, but facing up to the burly, grizzled veterans of catenaccio he suddenly looked small and inhibited. Instead of imposing his play on the field, Ahn adapted to become more opportunistic, opting not to stay on the ball for too long and instead relying on late runs and channel-finding so that he could avoid contact with opponents he knew he could not overpower. It took away the great strengths he had in Korea – dribbling, driving runs, ludicrous amount of confidence – and turned him into a different player. Clearly the ruthless treatment Serie A defenders had in store for strikers was an unnerving factor, and this combined with the change in professional and personal environment, expectations of a whole nation eyeing his every move, and the general step-up in quality of the opposition to contribute towards his lack of form.

Ahn’s poor play, coupled with Korea’s determination to leave no stone unturned in preparation for the 2002 World Cup being staged on home soil, led to Perugia accepting the Korean Football Association’s request to release him three months before the end of the season. Guus Hiddink, having surprised many by taking the post of the Red Devils manager the year before, had established a training camp for players since the start of 2002 in an unprecedented move to ready the team for the big event, and the World Cup would be the making of Ahn’s legend in Korea. Hiddink made it clear that he would play with one striker, and that 34-year old Hwang Sun-Hong, the veteran of 1994 World Cup and one of Korea’s most prolific scorers, would be the starter in that position. Ahn was going to be Hiddink’s joker, coming on later in the game and adding some much-needed spice to Korea’s attack as well as allowing the aging Hwang to rest and avoid playing the full 90 minutes. Thus Ahn began the World Cup on the bench against Poland, but in the second match of the group stages against the USA, he came on to score a vital equalizer in the 78th minute with an expertly taken glancing header past Brad Friedel, who had been absolutely impregnable up until then. What’s more, Ahn celebrated by paying tribute (with the help of midfielder Lee Chun-Soo) to the short-track skater Kim Dong-Sung, who was controversially disqualified in favour of Apolo Anton Ohno for the gold medal at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics five months earlier. Not only did it help cement Ahn’s place in the hearts of Korean supporters by allowing them some level of catharsis, it was also one of the first overtly directed goal celebrations from a Korean player in an international match. In previous World Cups, players limited themselves to simple expressions of joy, or at best a determined sprint to the bench, thus for Korean fans elaborate celebrations like the Brazilian baby cradle or the Klinsmann dive were the stuff of faraway legend. Ahn brought these exotic traits home, not just in this instance, but consistently with a Raul-inspired kiss of his engagement (and then wedding) ring that earned him the monicker ‘Lord of the Rings’.

The draw with USA was felt at the time to be very important, because few expected Korea to get anything out of a Portugal team led by Luis Figo that reached the last four of Euro 2000. Ahn was finally in the starting lineup for that game, and while he did not score he showed his value with some great runs and enterprising play in the opposition half (and should really have doubled Korea’s lead). It helped alleviate pressure from Portugal, who counterintuitively threatened much more after going down to nine men in the second half. By then, however, Park Ji-Sung had already scored an excellent winner, and Korea improbably topped a tricky group by three points.

Korea had achieved the pre-tournament aim of reaching second round, and more importantly, the players were now guaranteed exemption from national service. Just as meaningful for Ahn, however, was the looming fixture with Italy: here was a chance to show Perugia and Serie A that he wasn’t some Korean knockoff of Nakata and that he was a good player deserving of a proper run in the side. Play well, perhaps with a goal or two, and Ahn may start to be taken seriously by everyone in Italy. The details of the match have gone down in infamy in certain quarters, but for Ahn most of the first 90 minutes were a nightmare: a penalty had been awarded after Christian Panucci wrestled Seol Ki-Hyeon to the ground, but Ahn had his spot kick saved brilliantly by Gianluigi Buffon. Christian Vieri then promptly gave Italy the lead, and until Seol’s last minute equalizer Ahn ran about busily but impotently, trying to make amends for his miss yet running out of time to do so. The same problems which afflicted him in Serie A faced him again: against the tough, experienced and wily Paolo Maldini and Mark Iuliano, screened by the terrier-like Damiano Tommasi, Ahn was both outmuscled and outthought, easily brought to ground by routine challenges and hurried into quick horizontal passes after being unable to either hold up the ball or move past the defenders (in the post-match interview, Ahn said that he played while ‘crying inside’). It looked bleak for him and his team, but in injury time, after another bad miscue from Panucci, Seol scored a dramatic equalizer to send the game into extra time. With all substitutes already used Ahn stayed on the field, and this new lease of life gave him fresh focus: instead of battling Italian defenders head-on with conventional centre-forward play, he started to conserve his energy and looked to take advantage of openings when they came. And that chance came with three minutes left in the second half of extra time, when Ahn managed to outjump Maldini to score with another terrific glancing header from Lee Young-Pyo’s cross. It was the last golden goal in World Cup history, scored by a player with a point to prove against the country he plied his trade in. Ahn had hoped to both exorcise the demons of his struggles in Italy and impress his current and prospective employers. It was also ironic that the approach which had reduced him to a more limited player gave Ahn his greatest professional moment. Ahn must have received with mixed feelings, then, the post-match news that Gaucci, that incorrigible nutcase, had effectively fired Ahn for ‘ruining the Italian game’, and promising that he ‘would never play another game for Perugia’. It was met with derision and condemnation from many quarters – Hiddink called it ‘childish’ – but feelings were running high in Italy over what they perceived as deliberate refereeing bias in favour of the hosts, and it would have been a surprise if any other Serie A club had decided to bring Ahn in. With hindsight, then, the circumstances of Ahn’s golden goal had effectively ended his career in Italy, and not just Gaucci’s impetuous decision.

The Italy game was the highlight for the Korean national team in the 2002 World Cup. Korea would win the quarter-final against Spain in equally contentious circumstances before getting eliminated by Germany in the semis, but neither had comparable drama and excitement, Korea failing to find the net in both games and looking lethargic. Completely spent battling four consecutive top European teams with two going to extra time, Korea went on to lose the third-place playoff against Turkey, but the grateful nation nonetheless filled the streets to greet the heroes in the parade three days later. The squad was showered with adulation and almost every member of the first team received the keen attention of the press; Ahn, with his photogenic looks and the heart-stopping goals, was a ready-made idol and thus celebrated with particular enthusiasm. On the footballing side, his performance against Italy gave rise to hopes that he would fulfill his club destiny by joining a side in England, Spain or Germany. His post-2002 career, however, is one long peripatetic story of Ahn’s increasingly forlorn attempts for another shot at the big leagues. His pride had been badly dented by Gaucci’s behaviour, and Ahn rejected Perugia’s subsequent conciliatory overtures. The trouble was that the loan extension which kept Ahn in Italy for the 2001-2 season had an option-to-buy clause, which Perugia now threatened to enforce, while Pusan insisted that Gaucci’s statements rendered it invalid. Uncertainty surrounding Ahn’s registration is believed to have contributed to the reluctance of European clubs (which reportedly included Blackburn Rovers) to seek his signature, and after an impasse FIFA ruled that Ahn belonged to Perugia. Ahn’s continued desire to leave Italy was only realized when a Japanese talent agency bought out Ahn’s ownership from Perugia in the autumn of 2002, but the downside to this was a loan move to the J-League side Shimizu S-Pulse. Contracted to the agency for three years, Ahn was forced to spend what would have been the best years of his career in Japan, and while his record for S-Pulse and then Yokohama F. Marinos was excellent – 30 goals in 72 games – Ahn made no secret of his desire to move to Europe and test himself again on the big stage. He wouldn’t be the last player under third-party ownership to agitate for transfers, and indeed Ahn’s transparent longing to play in the Premier League or Bundesliga didn’t always make for the most edifying sight, but the circumstances under which he found himself, fleeing a team who didn’t want him only to be trapped in a league felt to be beneath him, inspire sympathy.

In 2005, finally free of his ownership by PM, Ahn moved to FC Metz in Ligue 1 and scored just two goals in 16 appearances, in a season that would see the team get relegated in last place. He left midway through the campaign to join the newly-promoted MSV Duisburg in the Bundesliga, but they too went down, giving Ahn the dubious distinction of having played for two relegated sides in the same season. Altogether, his second coming in Europe produced a meagre total of 4 goals in 26 appearances, and the experience must have left him feeling downtrodden as his age marched inexorably past 30. This would be his last club experience west of the Yellow Sea, although for his country there was more World Cup glory, this time the winner – a superb long-range effort – against Togo in the first group game in Germany 2006. After the tournament Ahn made an inglorious return to K-League to join Suwon Bluewings in 2007, and then returned to his hometown club the year after. There was a clear sense from Korean supporters who’d worshipped him that Ahn was now past it, and from Ahn that he was above the standards offered by his country’s professional league, a conflict of perspectives which manifested itself when Ahn clashed with abusive Seoul FC supporters in 2007, shouting that they ‘held back the progress of Korean football’. He didn’t help himself by contributing so little to his teams, scoring just 7 goals in two seasons, and a 2009 move to the Chinese side Dalian Shide felt very much like the winding down of a whirlwind career. Characteristically, Ahn continued to seek avenues out of the small confines of Asian football, sounding out transfers to Major League Soccer and the Australian A-League, but none came through. Thus he ends his career at Dalian, where by all accounts he was a successful and respected member of the squad.

It’s not easy to do justice to Ahn’s career in numbers alone. He played most of his career in very advanced positions, either as an out-and-out striker or a support forward through the middle, but his goal-scoring record is not exceptional. Ahn also played in 6 countries, increasingly becoming the subject of the adjective ‘nomadic’, and never played more than 45 games for any one club other than his last. This obliges observers to note instead his achievements for his country, where fans obsess with international tournaments with the same kind of passion other countries do with domestic club football – so much so that the national team is nicknamed ‘FC Korea’. Ahn was the player most representative of this trait, making an unusual number of decisive contributions for Korea while rarely capturing the magic elsewhere. But he was as true a pioneer as there had ever been in Korean football, and not just in terms of statistics or trivia: his move to Perugia, the first to a major European league since Cha, broke down an important psychological barrier, and while his time there wasn’t a success, it alleviated the pressure from expectant fans on subsequent movers like Lee Young-Pyo and Park Ji-Sung. But of greater consequence were his goals in 2002 World Cup. Korean public, and by extension young, budding Korean players, had never seen the team deliver when it mattered, repeatedly failing to trouble even average teams in ’86 and ’90. The promising performance in USA 94, where a last-minute equalizer against Spain and a spirited comeback against Germany seemed to presage a brighter future, had been completely undone in disastrous circumstances four years later, Korea going down 1:3 to Mexico and then losing 0:5 to Holland which triggered Cha’s disgraceful sacking mid-tournament. The debacle in France prompted a furious reaction at home, and while most agreed that a good deal of soul-searching – preferably with an ‘enlightened’ foreign coach in charge – was necessary, many also lost faith in the national team’s ability to play with the big boys. There were many reasons for Korea reaching the semis in 2002, chief among them Hiddink’s tactics and refereeing controversy, but Ahn’s two headers, which could not have been conspired for, were equally pivotal. His interventions allowed Korea not just to win and progress but to do so against the odds and advance further than anyone could have imagined, and it convinced Koreans that a significant mental block had been hurdled, that it was now possible to believe that defeat wasn’t the only option for the national team. To see the new breed of Korean players now – Lee Chung-Yong at Bolton, Ki Sung-Yueng at Celtic, Son Heung-Min at Hamburg –  and their more confident playing styles is to witness the effects of such transformation in Korean football’s character and self-esteem. The outpouring of tribute and well-wishes at his retirement attests to the affection and regard Ahn inspires in the country, which makes it all the more admirable the way he has handled his celebrity throughout his career. With the exception of that incident with FC Seoul supporters, and unlike other talented internationals like Ko Jong-Soo or Lee Chun-Soo, Ahn never allowed himself to be fully seduced by the money and women on offer to famous players. While his fame at times exceeded that of the biggest movie stars, he married early and remained fiercely committed to his family, and didn’t let the post-2002 football mania go to his head. Despite the contractual struggles which affected his career, Ahn remained – at least on the outside – fairly sanguine and, in contrast to some of the other members of the World Cup squad, did not express bitterness towards Hiddink for not taking him to PSV Eindhoven.

Ahn bids a tearful farewell

Overall Ahn’s was an unfulfilled career with more lows than highs, but the highs reached a level of spectacle and significance few players experience in their lifetime. Those outside Korea will probably not be able to place Ahn’s achievements in their full context, but no matter: he retires a hero to his nation, if not to his clubs’ supporters or chairmen, and no chronicle of Korean football history will be complete without a sizable tribute to the player they called the Lord of the Rings.

 

* Many thanks to this blog for information on Ahn’s contractual struggles.

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