In May of 2000 I moved to Italy, the magical land of soccer. Through a strange twist of fate I ended up living in a little town outside the city of Vicenza named Caldogno where I find myself living to this day. My first week there I visited the sports bar down the street and was amazed to see the walls covered with newspaper clippings, photos, paintings, jerseys, trophies and all kinds of other memorabilia all dedicated to one man: Roberto Baggio. It turns out that Baggio was born and raised in my little town of Caldogno, about a two minute walk from my little apartment! It was unfathomable to me that one of my favorite players of all time, the man I had personally witnessed beat Spain in the Quarterfinals of WC 1994, was from the little town I found myself living in. My 5 favorite players in the world at that time were Francesco Totti, Zinedane Zidane. Paulo Maldini, Eric Cantona and Baggio, 3 of whom were Italian. Although I still admired the French team, my affections quickly shifted to the Azurri. I'd been a fan pretty much since the time I heard that they had beaten Germany to win it all in 1982 and now that I was actually living in Italy, it was impossible to resist. I immersed myself in all things Azurri (for those who don't know, 'The Azurri" is the nickname of Italy's soccer team, taken from the blue shirts that they wear). I already knew most of their players and had watched them in every tournament since WC 1994 so it was easy to follow them. And follow them I did, watching every friendly and qualifying match they played in the 2 years leading up to World Cup 2002.
The Cup was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan that year, first time ever it was held in Asia. This sucked right away because the time difference meant that many of the matches would take place during the day here in Italy while I was at work. It was a strange tournament to be sure. For one thing, France failed to make it through the first round which was quite shocking as they were defending champions - and had also won the European Championship 2 years prior. I still had a soft spot for France at that time but I quickly realized that the team I admired so much in WC 1998 was long gone, replaced by a bunch of overpaid egos and attitude (Zidane being the exception). I would never cheer for them again after that tournament although Zidane does remain one of my favorite players ever and probably the best I've watched in my lifetime.
World Cup 2002 was memorable for several reasons. For one thing it was my first World Cup in Italy which was a dream come true in itself. The building I worked in had almost as many Italian workers as Americans so every TV in the building had the game on when the Azurri played. I remember watching Italy-Mexico in the small office of one of the Italians, Mexico had the lead and Italy needed a tie to go through to the next round. In the second half I repeatedly called for Del Piero to come into the match, that he would score for sure and after about the 10th time, I got the feeling that the Italian guy was starting to get annoyed with me. however, Del Piero DID come into the match and wouldn't you know it, he scored the tying goal that sent Italy through to the next round. I'll never forget the look on the guy's face when Del Piero scored too, he looked at me in astonishment and then started laughing as I gave him the "I told you so" look.
Perhaps most memorable for me was that 2002 was the best ever showing for the US team in my lifetime. They reached the Quarterfinals before losing to Germany although they outplayed Germany that day and even had a valid goal disallowed.
Plenty of great goals stand out to me as well: Robbie Keane's dramatic last minute goal against Germany giving them an improbable tie and sending them to the second round...Ronaldinho's long distance goal against England that looked suspiciously like a cross that just happened to find the back of the net...Garcia-Aspe's sublime header against Italy, just to name a few. A few matches stand out, most notably the Brazil-Turkey semifinal, The US-Mexico Quarterfinal and Germany's 8-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia and there were also a handful of teams who came out of nowhere such as Turkey and Senegal.
Sadly, this was the first world Cup I can remember where the refs made headlines with their poor performance. It was at this tournament that I became convinced that FIFA are corrupt. South Korea were a team that had never even advanced to the second round of a World Cup before and yet some very shady refereeing ensured that they made it all the way to the semifinal of World Cup 2002 which they just happened to be hosting. It certainly left a bad taste in my mouth but overall this was a very entertaining tournament with a lot of surprises. Interestingly, when Germany met Brazil in the final, it was the first time the two countries had ever played each other in a World Cup. I didn't like the fact that I had to miss so many matches due to the time difference but I had high hopes for 2006 which was being hosted by Germany.
Up Next: 2006