KNT History: The Fourth Place Finish You Never Heard About

Last Sunday, Mexico edged out the United States 1-0 in an intensely fought final to cruise to their 8th CONCACAF Gold Cup title and 11th overall continential title. With a goal from LA Galaxy midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos, El Tri managed to defeat the United States for the fifth time in the Gold Cup final. For nearly 30 years, Mexico and the United States have demonstrated their bilateral dominance of CONCACAF through the continental football association’s premier biennial competition. Though, in some editions of the tournament, less prominent CONCACAF players such as Canada and Costa Rica have threatened this balance of power.

However, prior to 2007, CONCACAF had a history of inviting national teams from outside of their federation to take part in the formerly 12-team Gold Cup. Due to specific qualifying rules, only 10 Gold Cup spots were allocated to CONCACAF teams, while the other two were invitees from other confederations. CONMEBOL teams like Colombia were routinely selected due to their general proximity to North America. But in preparation for the 2002 World Cup, the Korea Republic national team was actually invited to the 2000 and 2002 editions of the Gold Cup. In fact, Korea was the first nation outside of the Americas to have participated in the tournament. The only other national team to have achieved this feat was South Africa in 2005, who were also seeking to become impressive hosts of an upcoming World Cup. 

The First of Two Tournaments

The 2000 Gold Cup saw the KNT matched up in Group D with Canada and Costa Rica. (Remember those two teams because they’ll make another key appearance in this article.) Costa Rica played to 2-all ties in both of their matches, while the game between Canada and South Korea ended up in a scoreless draw. With each of the three teams deadlocked at two points, goals had to be counted, naming Costa Rica the group winners. However, with no fair play rule in place, Canada and South Korea had to be separated by a coin toss to determine who would move onto the quarterfinals. Korea manager Huh Jung-moo chose tails. The decision went heads. Canada moved on and won the entire tournament, trekking through respectable teams, including Mexico and Colombia, in their path to international silverware. To this day, Les Rouges, not Brazil, are the only team besides the US and Mexico to have won the Gold Cup. (There’s a more detailed article from the Canadian perspective about the craziness of the coin toss here.)

The Canada national football team after winning the 2000 Gold Cup

The Big Stage Before the Big Stage

Two years later, the KNT returned to CONCACAF’s biggest stage with something to prove. Playing with a young Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo, Korea found themselves with a cannon-load of potential heading into the 2002 Gold Cup. This time, they were pitted up against the U.S. and Cuba in Group B. Having defeated the Americans 1-0 in Korea just a month before, the KNT were set to face the United States again, this time in sunny Southern California. This game was crucial, considering both teams were going to encounter each other for a third time in a year at the 2002 World Cup the following Summer. Disappointingly, Korea let the game slip through their hands after 19 year-old DaMarcus Beasley, the youngest player on the American team, had scored in the final minute. Fortunately, Korea were able to regroup four days later for their match against Cuba, which ended in a scoreless draw. This time, Korea was successfully able to reach the knockout stages, having edged out Cuba for second place by one goal scored. 

Korea met with a familiar rival in Mexico when they reached the tournament quarterfinals. Before this marquee matchup, Korea had defeated Mexico 2-1 in a group stage match in the 2001 Confederations Cup. With the game tied 1-all, Yoo Sang-chul had scored in the final minute of regular time to keep Korea’s hopes in the Confederations Cup alive. Korea would later defeat Australia but were left out of the tournament semifinals that year after succumbing to France in a humiliating 5-0 defeat in their first group match. By the time Mexico were ready to face Korea again, they had already dispatched Central American rivals El Salvador and Guatemala for first place in Group A. Despite the Confederations Cup loss, the Mexicans were heavy favorites to defeat Korea and win the entire tournament once again.

Return to the Rose Bowl

A crowd of more than 30,000 gathered at the Rose Bowl that Winter afternoon to watch El Tri and the Taeguk Warriors compete for a spot on the Gold Cup podium. For Southern Californians of Korean descent, this would be one of the few opportunities they would have to watch the KNT play in-person. For the neutral viewer, this game was an inside look into how both Korea and Mexico would fare in the ensuing 2002 World Cup. After a hard fight of 120 minutes from both teams, the game ended in a scoreless draw, forcing it into a penalty shootout in the rain.

Noriega. Check. De Anda. Check. Mexico scored their first two. EY Lee. Check. DG Lee. Check. Korea scored their first two as well. It was suddenly tied at two penalties a piece, with Luis Sosa Cisneros coming up to the spot. His quick attempt to down the middle was immediately batted away by Suwon goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae. Choi Sung-yong then put a conservative shot past Adrian Martinez to put Korea ahead 3-2 in the shootout. Ignacio Hierro was next to feel the weight of an entire country’s continental hopes on his shoulders. Blasting his shot from the left foot, Hierro had his attempt blocked down the middle. Once again, Lee Woon-jae’s heroics would prove to save Korea in their quest for Gold Cup glory. Future Tottenham defender Lee Young-pyo put in a high shot to his right that met the crossbar and dropped down past the goal line to put Korea into the semifinals. (Rare footage of the shootout can be found here.)

The KNT celebrates during a penalty shootout against Mexico

Korea’s Other Fourth Place Finish in 2002

Korea would later fall undone by Costa Rica 3-1 to lose their chance of winning their first continental tournament since the 1960 Asian Cup. Korea faced off against Canada in the third place match, only to lose that match as well by a scoreline of 2-1. An own goal by Kim Do-hoon in the 34th minute and a goal by Canada a minute later would prove to be Korea’s tournament pitfall to 4th place. On the positive side, Korea had greatly exceeded expectations by placing in a tournament as invitees with a mostly second-string lineup. Amazingly, Korea had found a way to finish 4th place in the Gold Cup without winning a match—the Mexico match was recorded as a tie in the FIFA record books. Unbeknownst to Dutch manager Guus Huddink, this wouldn’t be the only instance that he would take Korea to a 4th place finish in an international tournament that year.

To be fair, Korea’s 4th place “success” can be greatly attributed to the unconventional format of the 2002 Gold Cup. Firstly, Korea would have never been invited to this tournament twice had they not been selected as World Cup hosts. Secondly, Korea wouldn’t have been invited had CONCACAF been large and strong enough to host a tournament with 12 of its own teams. With 12 teams being split into four groups, Korea only had to place second in a group of three to make it to the knockout stages. Although the United States is always a strong matchup for Korea, Cuba has mostly been a global minnow for much of its footballing history. I could only imagine the riots had Korea not finished above Cuba at that time. As long as Korea could hold its ground against Mexico, the team had a path to getting to the semifinals of the Gold Cup that year. What happened a few months after that tournament, though? You likely know the story of 2002. We’ll leave that article for another day. 

Kim Nam-il, the only KNT player to have been selected as part of the 2002 Gold Cup’s Best XI

With Asian Cup finalists Japan and Qatar having recently participated in the last edition of Copa America, national team invitations to continental tournaments are still alive and well today. Although the Gold Cup is now a 16-team, all-CONCACAF tournament, Korea still has the chance to compete as invitees in future CONMEBOL competitions. Would you like to see Korea take part in one of these tournaments in the future? How well do you think they would have fared in either the Gold Cup or Copa America this Summer? 

Also, let us know in the comments if you remember the 2002 Gold Cup or the KNT’s pre-2002 World Cup run. Feel free to share how you felt about watching the KNT during that time. 

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