Japan & South Korea, 2002: Every morning in front of the TV

My days of waiting finally had finally come to an end and, when I saw her again, the World Cup turned out to be even more beautiful than I remembered. There would be no DENNIS BERGKAMP in 2002 as the Dutch team forgot to qualify, but this only served as fuel for my fascination. In 1998 I had mainly followed the World Cup as a fan of Oranje. They were the only team whose matches I watched in full: of the others I watched only highlights. I only got to know other teams from those highlights, or if they played against us. But now, without The Netherlands, I simply watched everything.

This was a time when not every living room had an internet connection, but TV programs started introducing squads and players weeks in advance. Mexico brought their wizard, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who grabbed the ball with both feet and jumped past his opponents. Cameroon had a deadly striking partnership in Patrick M’Boma and a young Samuel Eto’o. And Portugal was the team I would be rooting for, because of Luis Figo [i]. He was my favorite Galáctico. I always liked an underdog, and at Real Madrid the biggest stars were Raúl and Zidane – but Figo could match them in pure class whenever he felt like it.

But Figo and Mboma-Eto’o got eliminated in the group stage, while Blanco’s magic proved ineffective against the sturdy Germans in de Round of 16. Other heroes came to the fore. Papa Bouba Diop and Senegal defeated world champions France in the opening match. I vividly remember how it went down, and how surprised the commentator was. South Korea, led by Guus Hiddink, Ji-Sung Park and Ahn Jung-Hwan, amazed both friend and foe by beating almost all those friends and foes. Belgium, with Wesley Sonck of all people as their main man, managed to survive their group. And in the Spain squad, back then still defined by their unfulfilled potential, a young Joaquín was hugely impressive.

Earlier I said I watched everything, but because of the time difference with Japan and South Korea I could only rarely watch a full match. I had to make up for this with highlights and analyses, for which I woke up every morning well before I had to leave for school. I switched between Dutch and Belgian channels to watch as much as possible. One of those channels had an especially fascinating show, in which they continuously updated a Top 5 of greatest individual tricks of the tournament. Countless times I watched the Turkish prodigy Ilhan Mansiz use his heel to flick the ball over the head of his opponent, none other than Brazil star and Galáctico Roberto Carlos. The freekick of the then largely unknown Ronaldinho against England must have been shown dozens of times.

Out of all these clips and all this spectacle, two main storylines slowly materialized (at least in my mind as a ten-year-old). In the margins of these storylines, Turkey and South Korea, the eventual numbers three and four, had their best tournament ever. But Brazil and Germany were the main acts.

Brazil were perhaps even better than they were in 1998. Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos were still there, just like their captain, Cafú. Fresh additions Ronaldinho and Denílson impressed, but Achilles was still their focal point. Ronaldo’s knee had already failed him several times, so he wasn’t as unplayable as before, but he still scored eight goals to become the tournaments top scorer. For me, Brazil hadn’t lost any of their magic and with France already out in the group stage, surely nobody could stop them? Would Ronaldo have his revenge and win the World Cup, as he should have in ’98?

Germany planned on ruining that party. With players like Thomas Linke, Carsten Ramelow, Jens Jeremies and Dietmar Hamann this was the last boring, extremely tough German team to play at a World Cup. Captained by field marshal Oliver Kahn and featuring the tricky strikers Oliver Neuville and Miroslav Klose (who scored four goals in the 8-0 destruction of Saudi Arabia), Die Mannschaft was the ultimate anti-Brazil. Would they crush the dreams of Ronaldo and the Seleção like France had four years earlier?

I remember the Dutch hatred of Germany was alive and well at that time. This ugly team could not be allowed to win the final. Yes, Brazil had ended our tournament in 1998, but at least they played beautifully. They were the only ones deserving to win. Still, there was a real fear of the Germans withstanding wave after wave of Brazilian attacks, with their phenomenal goalkeeper Kahn. When me and my parents and brothers arrived at my grandparents to watch the final, we all braced ourselves for a German victory…

Ronaldo decided against that. In the 1998 final he might have been invisible, but this time he was the star of the show. He scored both goals, winning his country the world title and completing a beautiful comeback story. The Netherlands cheered for him. And, mostly, we were happy those Germans lost.

Still, I remember feeling hollow after the final. For four weeks I had been united with my one true love, but now I already had to say goodbye. I promised myself to enjoy it even more in 2006, for as long as possible.

[i] Bakker, E. (2015, November 11). Nostalgieweek: de momenten van Figo. [Article]. From Buitenkant Voet: https://www.buitenkantvoet.com/2015/11/11/nostalgieweek-de-momenten-van-figo/

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