Italy were expected to go far in the Far East in 2002, but as Anthony Alborino and Livio Caferoglu write, were only left frustrated with an early exit.
The Italian camp and the Press on the peninsula were quick to point the finger at the match officials, while at the same time chastising the team for an underwhelming display, as in truth they only had themselves to blame for the surprise defeat.
Knowing that their opponents Mexico had already earned a place in the second round, thanks to a 2-1 win over Ecuador, Italy had to secure victory against the Central American side to be absolutely sure of progression.
The Azzurri thought they had taken a big step towards achieving this after 13 minutes of their encounter in Oita, as Inzaghi hit home Totti’s excellent through ball, but the goal was wrongly disallowed for offside. Lightning had now struck thrice, and Italy fans were beginning to curse their luck more than ever.
While they waited to break at the right moment in search of the opening goal, the Mexicans passed the ball well and rarely surrendered possession. They were promptly rewarded for their resolve, as Jared Borgetti, despite facing the wrong way, somehow headed home Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s floated cross at the near post.
The Italians went in search of an equaliser but created very little in the final third. Their emphasis on attacking could have resulted in a second goal being conceded, had it not been for Fabio Cannavaro’s superb block.
Going into the break, news filtered through that the tie between Ecuador and Croatia was still goalless, meaning that if things stayed as they were, Italy would be on an early flight home.
Chances came and went, with Vincenzo Montella and Inzaghi both failing to make opportunities count in the second period, and as the minutes ticked by, the 1982 winners’ fate in the Far East became bleaker.
However, in the 85th minute, Alessandro Del Piero, who had replaced Totti, popped up in the box to head in Montella’s cross. The Italy fans went into raptures, and the entire nation breathed a sigh of relief.
As it turned out, Ecuador had triumphed 1-0 over Croatia, so the Azzurri could have gone through even with a loss, but Del Piero’s goal was nonetheless priceless.
Having contested their group games in Japan, Italy would travel to South Korea for the round of 16 and face the joint-hosts on their own patch. The encounter that followed will forever be etched into the memory of all Azzurri tifosi…for all the wrong reasons.
In the fourth minute, hearts were in mouths, as the Asian nation were awarded a controversial penalty after Christian Panucci was alleged to have pulled Seol Ki-Hyeon to the ground. However, Perugia’s Ahn Jung-Hwan’s resulting spot-kick was well saved by Buffon, who dived low to his right and pushed it round the post.
Aside from this, the Koreans rarely tested the Juventus custodian, partly due to a masterclass in defending from none other than Paolo Maldini. At the opposite end, Vieri’s powerful header from a Totti corner put Italy in the lead on 18 minutes to claim his fourth goal in as many games.
The score remained 1-0 for the vast majority of the game, until, with just two minutes of normal time to play, Panucci hashed a clearance, and Seol latched onto a Hwan Sun-Hong cross to fire the ball past Buffon. Extra time was imminent, and Italian legs grew weary.
Frustrations were compounded as Totti received a second yellow for diving in the 18-yard box on 104 minutes, as instead of awarding a penalty, Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno - who in 2011 was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for attempting to smuggle 10kgs of heroin - sent Italy down to 10 men. Replays suggested that he had merely lost his footing.
Damiano Tommasi’s golden goal was then chalked off - a strike which could have secured the Azzurri passage to the quarter-finals - and considering Totti’s red card plus the failure to discipline the Korean players for their overly-physical approach, Moreno had made three too many referring errors.
As the match edged closer to penalties, the Italian-based Ahn, who had taken and missed the earlier penalty, redeemed himself. Lee Young-Pyo drilled the ball into the penalty box, and the striker climbed above Maldini, placing it past Buffon in the 126th minute to send Italy crashing out of the competition and the crowd into raptures.
The game had more than a hint of déjà vu for Italy, as it brought back memories of the 1966 tournament, when North Korea also defeated the Azzurri to reach the quarter-finals.
Match-winner Ahn may have written his name into World Cup folklore, but his exploits also led to Perugia President Luciano Gaucci declaring that the forward would never play for the club again after disrespecting the Italian nation - just a day after South Korea’s famous win.
“That gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again,” Gaucci promised. “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 opened its doors to him two years ago. I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football.”
It is perhaps worth noting that this is the very same man who signed Colonel Gadaffi’s son Al-Saadi in 2003 and almost followed it up with a swoop for then-star of the women’s game, Birgit Prinz.
With the likes of Francesco Totti, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro and Christian VIeri fast approaching their primes, Italy’s so-called Golden Generation - a term now synonymous with flattery and underachievement - failed to live up to the hype surrounding their talents.
Only against Ecuador did Italy really play anywhere near their maximum capabilities. Bar that, they were punished for using old-fashioned tactics. Trapattoni’s persistence with catenaccio was derided for being too defensive and lacking innovation.
As a result, their counterattacking intent became too predictable, as attacks regularly broke down. In the case of Totti, a player who thrived when given the opportunity to pull the strings at his own pace, he looked uncomfortable in such a rigid system and failed to attain enough creative licence.
But with five perfectly good goals disallowed and a player wrongly sent off in the final game, there is still a great deal of injustice felt to this day. The name Byron Moreno is one which will live in infamy in Calcio for a long time.