Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 - A Good Year For South Korea

Korean soccer news.
2009 was a very good year for football in South Korea. The major target, qualifying for a seventh successive World Cup, was met with surprising smoothness. A K-League club winning the Asian Champions League was a major bonus as was the fact that the teams playing the best soccer got the best results in the domestic league.

Whether 2010 will be viewed a success will depend largely on what happens in South Africa in June.

The Taeguk Warriors in a good position in their 2010 World Cup qualification group. The 1-0 win over North Korea in Seoul in April strengthened that grip on the top spot. It wasn’t without controversy however. DPRK striker Jong Tae-se felt that his header, early in the second half, had crossed the line before goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae pawed it clear. Coach Kim Jong-hun definitely thought so as he explained in the post-match press conference. He also declared that his players had been poisoned at their Seoul hotel before the match before storming out past stunned reporters.

Kim Chi-woo’s winning goal was overshadowed but it put clear daylight between South Korea and its rivals. That meant that a win in Dubai in June at the home of group whipping boys UAE would be enough for a South African spot. Goals from Park Chu-young and Ki Sung-yong, two young and fast-improving stars, did just that and for a night at least, a little corner of Dubai echoed to the sound of Korean celebrations.

There were still two qualifiers left and South Korea tied both against Saudi Arabia and Iran which also allowed North Korea to finish second in the group and follow its southern neighbour to Africa. Next June marks the first time that the Korean peninsula will send both representatives to the World Cup. Unsurprisingly, there have been discussions on just how good a ‘Korea United’ would be.

That is for the future because history was made in November just across the East Sea in Japan, Pohang Steelers became the first in Asia to become continental champions three times.

It was a thrilling march to the final of the Asian Champions League. The group stage was safely negotiated and then the knockout rounds brought goals and dramas. Australia’s Newcastle Jets left the Land of the Morning Calm after a 6-0 thrashing.

Then the continent’s wealthiest team Bunyodkor was dispatched over two legs of the quarterfinal. Luiz Scolari led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup but couldn’t lead the Uzbeks past Pohang. The Steelers lost 3-1 in Tashkent but recovered in fine style at home in the Steelyard to win the second leg 4-1 and thus the tie 5-4 on aggregate. Umm Salal of Qatar ended dreams of an all-Korean semi-final by eliminating FC Seoul but the West Asians met their match in the red-and-black shape of the Steelers in the last four.

Pohang was the underdog in the final, going up against Saudi Arabian powerhouse Al Ittihad. The setting was Tokyo National Stadium and the Koreans rose to the occasion with a 2-1 win, to earn a place in FIFA’s Club World Cup. There Pohang finished third, defeating the champions of Africa and North and Central America. It was a great year for the Steelers, tempered by the fact that it ended with coach Sergio Farias waving goodbye and signing a lucrative contract with Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia.
On the domestic front, Pohang finished second in the K-League in an exciting race for the title that was eventually, and deservedly, won by Jeonbuk Motors.

The team from Jeonju had never been champion before, indeed the whole of the south-west has been a title-free zone since the start of the K-League back in 1983. Not any more as ‘Lion King’ Lee Dong-gook grabbed 21 goals and was ably supported by Brazilians Eninho and Luiz Henrique as well as a revitalized Choi Tae-wook. Jeonbuk finished top of the standings at the end of the regular season and then defeated Seongnam Ilhwa in the championship play-off final.

FC Seoul fought it out with Jeonbuk at the top for most of the season but just faded a little right at the death. The capital club didn’t only lose out on another title but also lost star players Ki Sung-yong and Lee Chung-yong to clubs in the UK. That was long expected as was the departure of coach Senol Gunes. The man who took Turkey to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup spent three seasons in the capital and became known for giving youngsters opportunities with the first-team.

Defending champions Suwon Bluewings endured a very disappointing campaign and spent most of it languishing near the wrong end of the standings and the team was accompanied by another unfamiliar struggler in the shape of Ulsan Horang-i.

Seongnam Ilhwa started slowly but rallied in the second half of the season to finish fourth and then made it to the final off the play-offs before losing to Jeonbuk.
In the end, it was all about Jeonbuk and the boys in Green end the year at the top of the tree.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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