Arrivederci, Italy: Koreans revel in a golden moment

As one host nation falters, another celebrates its greatest sporting victory and the Irish team returns to a heroes welcome
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The Independent Football

South Korea was celebrating last night after its football team defeated a dumbstruck Italy to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup, just hours after co-host and historic rival Japan crashed out of the tournament.

South Korea was celebrating last night after its football team defeated a dumbstruck Italy to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup, just hours after co-host and historic rival Japan crashed out of the tournament.

Millions of Koreans turned out on to the streets to watch their country's golden goal defeat Italy in Taejon, one of the biggest upsets so far in a tournament already rich in surprises. But Japan's uninspiring 1-0 defeat by Turkey, on the greyest and rainiest day of the tournament so far, made an anti-climactic end to an exhilarating fortnight for both nations.

As the first co-hosts, and the first Asian organisers of the World Cup, both countries had a lot at stake in the tournament, and both have far exceeded expectations. The success of the Japanese team, which lost every game in their only previous World Cup appearance, guarantees a future in the country for a sport that was in danger of running out of steam.

But last night it was eclipsed by South Korea, where there were rapturous nationwide celebrations after the team won 2–1 with a golden goal in extra time, after missing a penalty and going 1-0 down in the first half. Fireworks went off across the capital, Seoul, where more than one million people filled the streets after watching the match on giant television screens.

Across the country four million people – one out of every 12 Koreans – were reckoned to be outside celebrating. "This is a miracle," wrote the Chosun Ilbo newspaper on its website. "Not satisfied with Korea's first ever advance to the final 16, our 23 players created a drama for the fans who supported them with burning passion."

Korea's Dutch manager, Guus Hiddink, who has been offered Korean citizenship for his success in coaching the national side, called his team "one of the superpowers of football". He said: "They are very clever and they are very dangerous. I think this is unique, what the Korean players have done so far. I'm very, very happy, I'm very satisfied."

In Japan, the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, offered comfort to a team which – under their controversial French manager, Philippe Troussier – had already progressed further than many of their countrymen expected.

"It's a shame, but they did very well," he said. "They brought excitement to so many people. I would like to thank the manager, Troussier, and the players."

Yesterday's results marked the end of the discreet but intense rivalry between Japan and South Korea, which has developed behind the scenes since Fifa announced six years ago that they would co-host the tournament.

Football authorities in both countries were appalled at the decision, which was intended to mend the rivalry between the two neighbours. In fact, the two halves of the World Cup have evolved almost as separate tournaments, with very little obvious goodwill or interchange between Japan and South Korea.

Both avoided the humiliation of becoming the first host country not to advance beyond the competition's first round. But Korea outclassed the Japanese yesterday in front of a stadium full of supporters who confirmed their reputation as the most fanatically devoted in the tournament.

The stadium was full of placards referring to the last great Korean World Cup victory: the 1-0 defeat of Italy by a team from the separate Communist state of North Korea in England in 1966.

"The dream goes on and we have set another record for Korea," Mr Hiddink said after the game. "I'm very happy for the boys and we had a difficult time in the first half with missing a penalty and against such an experienced team. Now the players are so, so happy in the locker room. I'm glad that we've done it for the Korean people."

Japan's successes in the World Cup have provoked unprecedented scenes of mass jubilation, but yesterday's performance at Miyagi stadium in the north of the country was met with well-mannered resignation.

"Japan did well, but today it was obvious that they are still not up to the level of European sides," said a 35-year old businessman named Yoshiaki Hattori outside the Miyagi stadium.

"Football is not genuinely popular here yet, but this performance can be the basis for improving to a European standard," he said. "A lot of our success was down to the home advantage – if we'd been playing outside Japan we wouldn't have got this far."

But the genuine elation provoked by the team's earlier successes will have a lasting influence in Japan, where football has been struggling to maintain its popularity alongside better-established sports such as baseball and sumo. After a good start a decade ago, clubs in Japan's domestic J-League have struggled to maintain the interest both of spectators and corporate sponsors. But the huge television ratings achieved during Japan's games, and the superstar status of players such as Junichi Inamoto and Hidetoshi Nakata, should guarantee a supply of new supporters and sponsors.