Joyous uprising signals end to cynicism

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The Independent Football

The World Cup revolution surged on last night when South Korea, following in the footsteps of their neighbours North Korea, sent mighty Italy the way of the deposed champions France and the favourites Argentina.

The World Cup revolution surged on last night when South Korea, following in the footsteps of their neighbours North Korea, sent mighty Italy the way of the deposed champions France and the favourites Argentina.

Ahn Jung-Hwan's golden goal in Taejon will be ranked alongside the one of Pak Do-Ik which brought down the Azzurri in the 1966 World Cup as one of the great shocks in the history of the the game. But the old order of football, already shaken by the emergence of such shock troops as Senegal and the United States, is wrong to shake its head in dismay and talk of a slide into mediocrity.

That simply ducks the issue which has been so gloriously addressed by the unheralded forces of third world football.

Senegal, the Americans and now South Korea are not the spoiling giant-killers dragging down the standards of the great tournament. They are the moral force of a game which was desperately in need of a renewal of its old spirit.

South Korea challenged every facet of Italy's alleged superiority. When they forced a late equaliser they did not do as another of the favourites, Spain, did on Sunday night when they found themselves pegged back by Ireland. They didn't retreat into the hope of a penalty shoot-out escape from the consequences of their surrender. They kept playing real, honest, brave football and their reward was a thoroughly deserved victory.

Just as the United States succesfully challenged first Portugal and then Mexico, and Senegal threw themselves at an exhausted France, South Korea reminded us of the point of the game. It is not cynical defence. It is not psychological retreat the moment you get your noses in front. It is about the playing of the game from the first minute to the last. It is about expressing not your caution but your courage.

What has happened here in the Far East is not so much the creation of a wide open World Cup but a future for the game no longer cleanly drawn between the rich and the poor.

There should be no tears for the fallen Italians and the French and the Argentinians. They had the wealth and the history. South Korea, the Americans, and Senegal had the burning ambition to play to their limits.

The astonishing quarter-final line-up will prompt, legitimately, calls for the international football establishment to look into the effects of the money-gouging imperatives of so much of the modern big-time game. Certainly the pressures piled upon the stars of world football have been grimly traced by the injuries to such key performers as Zinedine Zidane of France, Luis Figo of Portugal and David Beckham of England. All these luminaries came here nursing wounds and hoping to find some of the touch worn down by long, draining seasons in domestic and European club competition.

But that is still a relatively minor influence on the astounding upheavals that have heaped one surprise upon another after Senegal opened this World Cup with their audacious assault on France. The real key is the willingness of the smaller nations to play without a hint of being intimidated by old powers and old reputations.

South Korea's veteran Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, has superbly marshalled this proud defiance. "My players have speed and courage and skill," he said coming into the tournament. "They play football with joy. It is worth a goal every match."

For the sense of a true world game cutting across demarcation lines of wealth and tradition the victory of the rampaging South Koreans was worth a lot more than that. Football's old guard is saying this is a World Cup of collapsing standards. But they would say that. It is to shift blame, but not very convincingly.

The Kings are, if not dead, creaking in their old, played-out world of systems and tactics and skyrocketing budgets.

Hiddink has released the force of a new game filled with refreshing ambition to play the game with boldness. Far from turning back the course of football, it has given it new life, new adventure.

The players of South Korea brought pride to their nation last night. But their recognition should spread wider that. It should run into every corner of football as it proclaims new values for an old and exhausted game.