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(35) Hiddink: hero from Holland and Korea's football magician

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By Andrew Salmon

It was a balmy early summer evening on June 4, 2002, as pre-match, the national anthems of Poland and South Korea blared across the Busan World Cup Stadium. But the heated atmosphere in the stands was not due simply to the weather.

There was the usual pre-match anticipation, but a strong undercurrent of tension too. Though Korea had qualified for more World Cup tournaments than any other Asian nation — five — it had not won a single match in the globe's most popular sporting tourney. Moreover, in World Cup history, no host nation had ever failed to make it beyond the first round of the tournament. If Korea failed to win a match and failed to make it past stage one, there would be national humiliation.

Reflecting this apprehension, a gigantic banner was hoisted among the Korean fans. It pleaded, "Hiddink, make our dreams come true."

Guus Hiddink, the first foreign manager of a Korean World Cup squad did exactly that. In a game attended by President Kim Dae-jung, Korea scored a convincing 2-0 victory.

From then on, the team Hiddink had coached could do no wrong. The previously unheralded South Korean side swept from victory to victory in a fairy-tale rush, unseating three European powerhouses in the process. Not only had Korea beaten a losing streak that went all the way back to 1953, but there seemed, as the competition neared its climax, a delirious possibility that the country might go all the way to the finals. Millions of Koreans hit the streets to cheer on the team.

Amid this joyous madness, the serious-looking 55-year-old Dutchman — who was photographed during matches, intently pacing the sidelines, often with his chin on his fist — became the most celebrated foreign national in the nation.

From Varsseveld to Seoul

Born in 1946, Hiddink started his football career in the youth team of his hometown in the Netherlands, Varsseveld, turning pro in 1967 with De Graafschap. By 1973, he — and the club — were playing in Holland's top league, with Hiddink being a prominent midfielder. He retired as a player in 1981 and made the transition from doing to teaching in 1983, as an assistant manager at the famous PSV Eindhoven. In 1987, he took over the top job at the club, and in 1988, led the side to lift the European Cup.

From then on, his visibility soared. He coached Turkish and Spanish clubs, then became manager of the Dutch national side in 1995, where his no-nonsense leadership became apparent. He united a team noted for internal squabbling, and in 1998, led it to the World Cup semifinal, where it went down to Brazil. Later that same year, he moved on to the management of superstar team Real Madrid, but there his blunt speaking and lack of league success saw him given the boot a year later. However, another opportunity beckoned on the far side of the world. He was contacted by South Korea.

Though Japan had been expected to win exclusive rights to hold the first World Cup in Asia in 2002, underdog South Korea had come up with a brilliant international PR campaign. "The Rightful Choice" made the case that Korea had — given its previous World Cup appearances — a better right to host the tournament than Japan. A compromise was reached and FIFA allowed the first-ever bi-national co-hosting of the event.

"The Rightful Choice" had been the brainchild of PR executives Bill Rylance and Brian Matthews of Merit Burson-Marsteller; clearly, foreign skill sets had been successful in winning the hosting rights. Now, Korea's Football Association wanted to harness overseas expertise directly to the national side.

In December 2000, Hiddink was invited to coach Team Korea for a trial-by-fire in the summer of 2002.

Guus takes command

The early days were not encouraging. There was the inevitable suspicion of the outsider. In interviews, though he maintained an ambience of quiet confidence, he refused to make rash predictions. Local reporters and camera crews took to following him around, even filming him at restaurants as he discussed formations and tactics. He was criticized for not taking his duties seriously when his girlfriend joined him.

Worst of all, Korea's showing in matches prior to the World Cup were not encouraging. The squad suffered 5-0 thrashings at the feet of both France and the Czech Republic in 2001, and in an American tour, proved unable even to beat football also-rans Cuba and Canada. Four months before the finals got underway there were calls for, and rumors of, Hiddink's upcoming dismissal.

But on the pitch, Hiddink had been making significant changes. He ditched the seniority system that plagued Korean football, promoting young players to the team if they had the fitness and the talent. One of those he brought up would become South Korea's most famous international football export, Park Ji-sung. (Park would later be pictured leaping into Hiddink's arms after scoring during the World Cup.)

One plus to the number of junior players he recruited to the team was that his boys were not tired out from a long season of club football, as was the case with some of the European teams. Hiddink also bought along his own conditioning coach, who tuned the young players to a peak of fitness. By the time June 2002 arrived, the team had tightly bonded and was fully familiar with the midfield- and winger-heavy formation Hiddink favored.

The Dutchman's early lack of popularity evaporated after that first win against Poland. As the tourney proceeded, the press that had been (at best) ambivalent about Hiddink, got on board. Moreover, it is a credit to the generosity of the Korean fans — the exuberant "Red Devils" — that the manager would become as popular a figure as any of his star players.

After Poland, it was Korea versus the U.S. In a tense match that was partly overshadowed by the then-recent deaths of two schoolgirls in a road accident with Korea-based U.S. troops — an issue that would explode onto the streets at the end of the year — the score was 1-1. In the third match, Korea overcame highly favored Portugal 1-0, meaning the team was through to the knockout stage.

Meanwhile, Korea — a nation where club football draws little interest — was going football crazy. Hundreds of thousands, then millions, of Koreans donned the red national strip and flooded the streets of cities to watch their team's games on giant LED screens set up overlooking plazas and intersections. Questions were raised to FIFA about the legal status of these screens showing live matches, but as an extraordinary carnival atmosphere gripped the nation, the potential issue was quickly dropped.

For a while it is safe to say that many of the Koreans who gathered in public to watch the matches barely understood the offside rule, it was clear that something remarkable was happening in South Korea. Prominent members of the international football press corps would be quoted as saying how more exciting the ambience was in Korea than in Japan.

The second, knockout round got underway. To the astonishment of global football aficionados and pundits, Korea beat Italy 2-1 in extra time in what was arguably the tournament's most exciting match. Next it was Spain's turn — the European nation went down at the last minute in a penalty shootout, making Korea the first Asian team ever to advance to a World Cup semifinal.

It could not continue: Korea's winning streak was bought to a halt by eventual champions Germany. Finally, Korea played Turkey in a third-place playoff that was (again) overshadowed by politics — North Korean gunboats sank a South Korean patrol vessel on the morning of the game. Korea lost to Turkey, but managed fourth place, a brilliant result for a nation that had appeared in five World Cup finals without winning a single match.

At the conclusion of the Turkey game, the celebrations were as happy and as good-natured as they would have been if Korea had won. Germany beat Brazil in Yokohama, and Asia's first World Cup came to a close.

Hiddink the hero

In the wake of Team Korea's remarkable showing, Hiddink's popularity soared heavenward. A press corps who had previously been critical were now worshipful. The manager's trademark goal-scoring celebration — a circle and raise of his fist from waist height — was widely copied by Koreans of all ages. He was favorably compared to Hendrik Hamel, the Dutch sailor marooned in Joseon between 1653-1666 who wrote the first detailed account of Korea ever to be published in Europe.

Hiddink was made an honorary Korean citizen and given cash bonuses, free flights for life on the national airline and a holiday home on Jeju Island. The city of Gwangju renamed their football stadium in his honor. VIPs — including the newly minted mayor of Seoul, an ambitious former businessman named Lee Myung-bak — queued up to shower him with honors, and, of course, to soak up the glory by being photographed alongside him. An economic research institute penned a scholarly study on how the "Hiddink Effect" could be applied to business. And Korean travel agencies arranged for Korea tour groups to visit Hiddink's sleepy hometown in the rural Netherlands.

Hiddink would not remain in Korea. He returned to PSV Eindhoven — but he did take with him local stars Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo, kick-starting their international careers. And given that he was now seen as one of the world's most successful managers of national football teams — in 2002 he was named FIFA's Manager of the Year — he was subsequently retained by Australia, Russia and Turkey, as well as by English and Russian clubs.

Though Guus Hiddink no longer maintains his connection with this nation's team, he remains an icon of that remarkable World Cup summer of 2002, a summer when Korean footballers and football fans astonished — and charmed — the world.

Andrew Salmon is a reporter and the author of three works on modern Korean history _ ''U.S. Business and the Korean Miracle: U.S. Enterprises in Korea, 1866 — the Present,'' ''To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951,'' and ''Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.''


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