Only in Serie A: Livio Caferoglu remembers when Perugia publicly disowned forward Ahn Jung-hwan for helping South Korea knock Italy out of the 2002 World Cup.
It’s easy to go straight to Maurizio Zamparini and Massimo Cellino when discussing crazy Serie A Presidents, but laying the foundations for them was the even more eccentric Luciano Gaucci.
Gaucci did it all in over 10 years as owner at Perugia, from signing the son of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi to trying to assign a women’s player to the first team. However, his most infamous act came in June 2002 involving one of his own – Ahn Jung-hwan.
Ahn joined Perugia on a two-year loan from Korean side Daewoo Royals in the summer of 2000. It was the Umbrian side’s second dip into the Asian market and expectations were high following Hidetoshi Nakata’s impact in the previous two years.
The attacker struggled to make much of an impression during his two seasons at the Renato Curi, scoring just five goals in 33 appearances while the likes of Marco Materazzi, Fabio Liverani and Fabio Grosso were becoming bona fide Serie A stars.
No-one, then, would have predicted the events that were about to follow. Fast forward to the 2002 World Cup in June and Ahn’s South Korea – tournament co-hosts – had set up a Last 16 tie with a contender for the greatest Italy side never to have won a major competition.
Ahn appeared to have done the Italians a favour when his fifth-minute penalty was saved by Gigi Buffon, and the Azzurri looked to be on their way to the quarter-finals thanks to Christian Vieri’s goal, until South Korea grabbed a last-gasp equaliser to take the tie into extra time. The next 30 minutes would prove to be among the most controversial in Calcio history.
Francesco Totti was sent off for a nonsense dive, Damiano Tommasi had a perfectly-good golden goal disallowed and – to top it all off – Ahn came back to haunt his paymasters with a dramatic header right at the death, dumping La Nazionale out of the tournament.
Truth be told, Perugia had no intention of redeeming their option to buy the forward before the World Cup. Yet Gaucci threw away millions in resale potential, instead choosing to publicly castigate the player over paying the paltry £1.2m to sign him on a permanent basis.
“That gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport. “He was a phenomenon only when he played against Italy. I am a nationalist and I regard such behaviour not only as an affront to Italian pride but also an offence to a country which two years ago opened its doors to him. I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer.”
It didn’t end there. South Korea boss Guus Hiddink accused Gaucci of being “childish” for sacking Ahn, while Perugia coach Serse Cosmi urged the President to reconsider sacking the 26-year-old, describing him as a player with ‘enormous potential’. Gaucci, however, refused to apologise.
“It has nothing to do with the goal he scored against Italy. He could have scored 10 and I wouldn’t have felt offended. It was simply the comments he made. He said Korean football was superior to Italian football, when Italy is a footballing nation. We have treated him well with all our love, but his comments were offensive to me and to the whole Italian nation. I feel offended by what he said. He should respect other nations as well as his own.”
With FIFA opting to sit on the fence, while Ahn and Perugia bitterly defended their corners, the Italian side were the first to blink, eventually relenting as they offered him a three-year contract to stay. Unsurprisingly, the offer was far too little, too late.
“He will never play again for Perugia,” warned his agency. “We will never consider his transfer to Perugia, which mounted a character assassination against Ahn just because he scored against Italy. Ahn Jung-Hwan does not want to go back to Perugia and Perugia has no right to demand him back. I sent a message to Perugia yesterday to state our position. The Korean people do not want Ahn to go back to Perugia.”
Indeed, Perugia’s cause was not helped by allegations they had not played the ex-Busan IPark man for four months prior to the World Cup and owed money to his parent club. The Umbrians claimed to have taken up their £1.2m option to buy, but Ahn did as Gaucci asked. He never set foot in Perugia again.
Both men went on to lead nomadic existences, with Ahn failing to secure a big European move, going on to play for the likes of Metz and Duisburg with little impact. Gaucci, meanwhile, left Perugia in 2005 following their liquidation and fled for the Dominican Republic after he was charged with fraudulent bankruptcy.
He died in February 2020 at the age of 81, but he was also a pioneer, making Carolina Morace the world’s first female coach of a professional men’s team at Viterbese in 1999. His charismatic, larger-than-life persona ensures his place as a cult hero of Calcio is set in stone, yet it is his handling of Ahn-gate that will sadly be most remembered.