Ulsan's crouching Tigers relish finest hour
© AFP

There are certain things a club must have in order to claim ‘big club’ status: considerable silverware, strong bonds with the local community and a prolific youth set-up to provide a production line of future stars.

But despite having all of these, Ulsan Hyundai have had trouble extending their dominance beyond the southeastern section of the Korean peninsula. The so-called Tigers have won the K-League just twice, in 1996 and 2005, although they have racked up a staggering 426 wins - more than any other Korean club for the past 30 years.

“I was surprised to find out that we had only won the title twice when I returned to Ulsan three years ago,” said current coach Kim Ho Kon, who was a founding member of the Tigers’ coaching staff in 1983. “There are no excuses for us now, and we will do our all to set the record straight.”

Our team has good communication and organisation; we are almost flawless in all departments.
Ulsan's AFC player of the year, Lee Keunho


It was earlier this year that the boss made this fateful promise during an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. He kept his word, too. Ulsan went undefeated to claim the AFC Champions League trophy last month, on the back of an unprecedented nine-match winning streak.

One of the reasons Ulsan have suddenly become such a dominant force on the continental stage could be their team spirit, as towering forward Kim Shinwook told FIFA.com after the famous victory at Munsu Stadium. “Above all, we play as a unit to achieve the goal of winning the Champions League, and all the players did well to show their best,” said the defender-turned-striker. “We’re a well-organised side, and we have balance in speed, power and height. We also have strong defence and are quick on the counter-attack, which might come in handy in a short tournament like this.”

Collective effort key
Kim was quick to point to Kwak Taehwi as the key player in the team, but the humble Korea Republic and Ulsan captain has other ideas. “We’ve got [Lee] Keunho and [Kim] Shinwook in attack, Lee Ho in midfield, and [Kang] Minsoo and Lee Yong in defence,” said Kwak, grinning cheerfully. “We got stronger as we played through the tournament. The lads were willing to help each other and their collective effort helped us win games.”

Kwak, a sturdy central defender, is renowned for his ability in front of goal, and he opened the scoring in the 3-0 final victory. He’s keen to continue hitting the back of the net at these FIFA Club World Cup finals in Japan, too.

“We’ll be up against top teams from around the world, and the lads are motivated by the prospect of facing Chelsea in particular,” he said. “We want to play against the strongest sides to see how confident and strong we can be against them.”

Meanwhile, winger Lee Keunho also downplayed his individual impact, despite being named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament and later being voted AFC’s Player of the Year for 2012.

“I never expected to win this award because there were many other players who had been outstanding throughout the competition, so I was surprised rather than pleased,” Lee admitted. “Our team has good communication and organisation; we are almost flawless in all departments.”

Like skipper Kwak, Lee is eager to make an emotional return to Japan after a stint in the J.League with Gamba Osaka. “I know this is a big tournament and a good opportunity for us to show the rest of the world how strong we are and what we’re capable of,” Lee admitted. “Besides, I’m relieved that I can return to Japan with such a great achievement [of winning the Asian title] and I’m really thrilled to show them how much I’ve improved since my time here.”