Saturday, November 17, 2007

Starless Steelers Return To Glory Days

Starless Steelers Return To Glory Days.
2007 K-League champions Pohang Steelers have no stars. That is the official line in South Korean football but it is one that it is only partly true.

The south-eastern outfit may have lacked a big-name player since Lee Dong-gook left for Middlesbrough at the start of the year but there have been some big performances from those in red and black in recent weeks as the team powered through the play-offs to take the title.

“We have no stars but now we have one more star on our shirt. Today we proved that you need effort and determination, not star players to win the championship,” Pohang’s beaming Brazilian coach Sergio Farias told the press after the win at Seongam last week.

“For a year, the players gave their all through some difficult times. I am highly satisfied with the success.”

The 40 year-old is not alone is welcoming a return to the top table of Asian football for the Steelers, formerly known as Posco Atoms. The club’s loyal followers have waited 15 long years to taste domestic success. The older members of that group will remember the glory days. Three league titles in seven seasons at the end of the eighties and the start of the nineties established the club as a genuine powerhouse.

As the decade progressed, it got better. A 1996 FA Cup win provided entry to the Asian Club Championship. Pohang won it. The 1997 triumph was followed by a successful defence in 1998.

So, in less than a decade a half in existence, two continental titles and three domestic league triumphs had been celebrated. The supporters were spoiled and when the trophies stopped arriving at the Steelyard, the fans, as fans are wont to do, started dreaming wistfully of the past. The reality at the time was that the club was struggling in the league, leaving Seongnam, Suwon and Ulsan to take the titles and plaudits.

Slowly however, the Steelers bounced back and up the table. In 2004, only a penalty shootout defeat at the end of a championship play-off final against Suwon denied a league championship. Before the start of the next season, the club saw the subsequent introduction of a young Brazilian coach names Sergio Farias as the missing piece in the Pohang puzzle.Three years later and patience has been rewarded.

Patience is ample but stars are lacking? Hardly, and that’s before the four golden ones that will appear on the famous shirts next season are taken into account. Tavares is in line for the player of the year after 11 assists over the course of the season and a good deal more besides. The Brazilian pulls the strings for Pohang on the park and has been one of the most consistent performers since joining the K-League in 2004.

Park Won-jae excelled in the play-off matches, scoring against Suwon and Seongnam. It is the 23 year-old’s misfortune that he has come to the fore when the national team is without a coach.

Kim Ki-dong’s time has come and gone as far as the Taeguk Warriors are concerned but the old warhorse is still going strong. The 34 year-old started his career when Pohang was last champion and over 400 games (and according to the official stats, 602 fouls) later, he finally collected a winner’s medal.Kim is talking about playing until he is 40 and anybody who has watched him in action up and down the southern half of the Korean peninsula would not doubt his ability to do so.

Also not in doubt is the potential of goalkeeper Jung Syung-ryeong. Three goals conceded in five play-off games suggest a solid backline. There may be no head coach but the national team’s goalkeeping guru is still in employment and has witnessed Jung consistently deny the best strikers that the league has to offer.

Perhaps the talk of no stars refers to the fact that it has been a genuine team effort and that is hard to argue with. Pohang work hard and are hard to beat.

With coach Farias due to sign a new contract, the signs are that it won’t be another 15 years until Pohang is once again the champion of South Korea.

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