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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 06:49 GMT 07:49 UK
The year of the underdog
South Korea coach Guus Hiddink oversees training ahead of the quarter-final with Spain
South Korea's win over Italy continued the shocks
BBC Sport Online's Stuart Roach

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In a tournament which carries the electricity of the World Cup, shocks are inevitable.

But the regularity with which they have flowed in 2002 has caused much scratching of heads.

Why are the big guns falling away so lamely while football's emerging nations sail on almost effortlessly?

The answer is simply that the playing field has levelled.

With Europe boasting half of the eight quarter-final teams, the continent can still claim to dominate world football.

But the fact that five corners of the football world are represented suggests a shift in the balance of power.

Brazil, inevitably, fly the flag for South America, Senegal represent Africa while the USA, remarkably, are still there for Concacaf.

This year's shocks
France 0-1 Senegal - 31 May
USA 3-2 Portugal - 6 June
France 0-2 Denmark - 11 June
Portugal 0-1 S Korea - 14 June
S Korea 2-1 Italy - 18 June

And then of course there is Asia, represented by Korea.

The co-hosts' achievements at this World Cup have caught the imagination, and they have already accounted for two of the tournament's biggest shocks, beating both Portugal and Italy.

Under a European coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink, Korea have come a long way in recent years.

Home advantage helps, of course, most European teams never having experienced playing in the energy-sapping Asian climate.

And the remarkable home fans, who have created an intimidating wall of noise at every Korean game, are like a 12th man.

Conversely, most European nations are poorly represented at this tournament, the expense of travelling to the other side of the world beyond many football supporters.

On the pitch, the Koreans have been inspiring too.

South Korea coach Guus Hiddink
Hiddink has guided South Korea to unprecedented heights

Their only real tactic is to press with speed when they have the ball and work in numbers to win back possession when it has been lost.

It is a relentless pursuit which has seen them emerge as the fittest team in the competition.

And fitness is clearly playing its part.

Korea and Japan, who also deservedly won their group before losing in the second round, came into this tournament fresh, benefiting from the fact that most of their players are home-based.

But long domestic seasons appear to have taken their toll on players who earn their living in Europe.

Portugal looked lame, Luis Figo a virtual spectator as this World Cup passed the apparent dark horses by.

Argentina, despite an opening game win over Nigeria, did not have the spirit to break down England or Sweden.

And Africa's emergence as a world force has been blunted by the surprisingly easy demise of African champions Cameroon and Olympic gold medal winners Nigeria.

Senegal's Amara Traore carries Henri Camara on his shoulders with Papa Bouba Diop  (right)
Senegal have reached the quarter-finals on their World Cup debut

Injury robbed France of Zinedine Zidane, with the world champions looking out of sorts without him.

They never recovered from an opening-day defeat against Senegal, a match which set the scene for this tournament.

But luck - or bad luck - also had a big part to play in France's demise.

They hit the woodwork five times in three games.

Italy will also point to bad luck, or bad refereeing.

Korea's games v European opposition in 2002
Won v: Italy, Portugal, Poland, Scotland, Finland
Drawn v: England, Turkey
Lost v France

They had three goals disallowed in two group games and were on the wrong end of some woeful decisions against Korea.

But blaming misfortune would merely be papering over the cracks.

Asia has emerged as a world force at this tournament, but not simply because the continent is staging its first World Cup.

South Korea have met European teams on eight occasions this year and have only been beaten once.

That defeat came at the hands of France, who recorded a 3-2 victory thanks to Frank Leboeuf's late winner.

The Koreans are clearly a force to be reckoned with.

And their win over Italy marked the first time an Asian side has beaten a team from Europe in the knockout stages.

It almost certainly won't be the last.


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