World Cup hero was savagely sacked by his club after ‘ruining Italian football’

Two decades ago, Ahn Jung-hwan was sacked for scoring a goal which made him a national hero.

The South Korea match-winner lost his day job with former Serie A side Perugia after dealing the knockout blow against Italy. It was a second-round tie at dogged by controversy as the co-hosts of the 2002 World Cup edged out the Azzurri in extra-time.

Daejon World Cup Stadium was the venue for the knockout encounter on June 18, 2002, and it was Italy who took an early lead through Christian Vieri. However, an 88th-minute strike from Seol Ki-hyeon sent the match into extra-time with the golden goal rule in effect.

Roma legend Francesco Totti was then dismissed just before the interval of extra-time for a second bookable offence, and the visitors also had two goals disallowed for contentious offside calls. In the end, it was Ahn who settled the contest with the decisive goal in the 117th minute which made him the villain in Italy.

Previously derided for an underwhelming two-year spell with Perugia, the forward found himself at the centre of a media storm. Ahn's innocent comments in the aftermath of the contest only served to fan the flames of this anger.

The forward told reporters: "Although we won on my goal, I think I should thank Italy. I didn't play much, [but] I've learned a lot and had tough times in Italy. That has helped me play good matches in this World Cup."

Ahn's actions combined with the controversial performance of referee Byron Moreno and his assistants led to an inquest in Italy. Days later, Perugia took decisive action against the employee who broke the nation's hearts.

Club president Luciano Gaucci told Gazzetta dello Sport: "That gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again. He was a phenomenon only when he played against Italy.

"I am a nationalist and I regard such behaviour not only as an affront to Italian pride but also an offence to a country which two years ago opened its doors to him. I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football."

Gaucci's declaration turned out to be something of a publicity stunt, but ugly scenes followed as Perugia demanded a $3.8 million compensation fee from any club interested in signing a player who had become a public enemy in Italy overnight. It took the intervention of a Japanese agency to free Ahn from the toxic association, which cost him the chance of a move to the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers.

Reflecting on the goal and controversy which followed, the forward recently told Korean JoongAng Daily: "After the World Cup, my wife went back to Italy to find that someone had smashed my Mercedes. The local newspaper even said the mafia were threatening to kill me. It was almost like I had ended my entire football career with that one goal.”

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