What Propelled The Underdogs In World Cup 2002?

Jun 12, 2018 1 Min Read

Lessons we can take away from


As the world prepares itself for 2018 FIFA World Cup, starting June 14, the headlines have been dominated by the favourites, mainly Brazil, Germany, Spain, and France.

It seems that the World Cup has become a procession for the powerhouses to strut their stuff. But the events of 2002 World Cup (yes, 16 years ago!) still linger in the minds of many fans.

It was the tournament that witnessed the underdogs rising from the shadows of the elite and setting the world alight with their achievements.

Asia’s proudest moment

Photo Credit: Pexels

The 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, witnessed a watershed moment for Asian football.

It was the first World Cup hosted in the Asian continent, and what followed was a tournament remembered by upsets. The furthest an Asian country had ever gone in the World Cup was North Korea in 1966, where they bowed out in the quarter finals.

In 2002, the South Korean team upstaged that with a fourth-place finish, after losing out to Turkey in the third place playoff.

Despite being accused of receiving favourable decisions by the referees, South Korea had faced a tall order from the very beginning.

In the group stage, South Korea stormed to finish as group leaders ahead of Portugal. They defeated the highly-fancied Italian team after extra-time in the round of 16. They persevered through intense pressure by Spain to defeat them in a penalty shootout in the quarter finals. Their gallant run may have ended at the hands of Germany in the semi-finals, but their extraordinary story lives on in football history.

So how did they do it?

Under the leadership of their Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, he revolutionised the tactics and training methods to suit the high work-rate of his players. He removed the culture of picking players solely on their age, and gave opportunities to younger players. The team grew mentally stronger with each game, playing to their nickname, the “Taeguk warriors”.

Learning points

The transformation of the South Korean team shows how culture within an organisation can be a major factor that impedes or creates growth.

Organisations should take a closer look at their culture, by discarding regressive policies such as favouritism and those that disregard meritocracy.

READ: The Game Plan – Integrating Leadership Lessons From The World Cup


Senegal… who?

The 2002 World Cup featured four debutants: China, Ecuador, Slovenia and Senegal. A look at the Senegal team revealed that 91.3% of their squad were plying their trade in France before the World Cup.

So when they faced the defending champions and mighty France in the first game of the World Cup, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. It was akin to a national vs club match. But what transpired was the most astonishing curtain raiser of any World Cup tournaments. Senegal weathered the early French storm!

Senegal would eventually hold on to an astonishing victory which stunned the football’s global fraternity. They exceeded their own expectations by reaching the quarter-final stage, losing to eventual third place finisher Turkey.

So how did Senegal, an unknown debutant, achieve the unexpected?

Many pointed towards Bruno Metsu, the national coach who instilled a strong team spirit within the ranks of the team. Metsu defined football as joy, and despite a couple of controversies surrounding his team’s behaviour during the tournament, he believed in their capabilities. The players responded to Metsu’s faith and seized their moment to create history.

Learning points

Senegal’s success shows why a strong leadership is crucial in transforming a dysfunctional team into a high-performing one. Leaders should also trust their people to give their best, but this should be complemented with clear instructions.

READ: Bite-Gate And Lessons We Can Learn From It


So close, Turkey

Turkey is a football-mad nation, defined by its vocal and passionate fan base. In the 2002 World Cup, they were seeded 23rd out of the 32 nations that competed in the tournament. This coincided with Turkey’s return to football’s pinnacle after 48 years of absence, and only their second ever appearance in the World Cup.

All in all, Turkey produced an inspiring performance against Japan and Senegal respectively to advance to the semi-finals. Brazil were in the crosshairs of Turkey. Many were confident that a major upset was on the cards. But their valiant run would then be crushed by the impending champions, after a tightly-contested affair which ended in a single goal defeat.

Despite the painful defeat, Turkey were lauded by fans worldwide for their resilience. Their bravery and courage made them a formidable opponent, thus justifying their nickname: Ay Yıldızlılar (Comeback Kings).

Learning points

Turkey’s run shows us that perseverance, coupled with an insatiable desire to win, are key drivers for a team to overcome pitfalls.
A strong team relationship also overcomes difficulties, and can surpass the gaps in individual talent.

Final thoughts

The final of the 2002 World Cup concluded with Brazil earning the bragging rights, but the feats of the underdogs were etched in football history.

The tournaments since have struggled to match the seismic moments created by South Korea, Senegal and Turkey.

In the upcoming World Cup, there are aspirations among many football enthusiasts to see the underdogs rising to the occasion again, and new insights we can gain from these matches.

Indeed, an exciting month ahead!

Pravin follows football very closely, and spends his weekends coaching football to young children. While you may be sacrificing your sleep watching these matches, we’ll encourage you to watch and learn from them. Who knows, some of the matches might teach us one or two leadership lessons that you can apply in your personal life, or in the organisation that you lead. We’d love to hear from you, so keep us posted at editor@leaderonomics.com.

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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