All or nothing for ironclad Tigers
© AFP

One of the most successful sides in the Korea Republic’s top flight, Ulsan Hyundai have been a big fish in a little pond struggling to translate their regional dominance into the far reaches of world football.

That is about to change, however, as the Tigers are making their debut in the FIFA Club World Cup against Monterrey of Mexico on Sunday. Few would have expected them to be at this stage earlier in March. Ulsan began their Asian campaign after snatching a berth in the AFC Champions League, despite finishing sixth in the K-League last season.

Three years ago, Ulsan failed to progress beyond the group stage under the guidance of then newly-appointed coach Kim Ho Kon, who also had a baptism of fire in the domestic competition as the Tigers finished as low as eighth. So when a second chance came this season, the 61-year-old had to make a strategic choice between the two fronts.

“We cannot chase two rabbits at the same time because we cannot afford to lose both of them,” Kim told FIFA.com when the Tigers were on an 11-match winless streak in domestic competition spite of their AFC Champions League win last month.

“In retrospect it’s disappointing for us to lose the chance to defend the continental championship next season. But if we had chased both goals we couldn’t have made both of them, so in a sense we’re satisfied at the moment.”

Although the Tigers managed to turn the tide and round off the season with two straight wins last week, it was not enough for them to finish in the top four. But Kim’s charges still have one more opportunity to shine as they are sailing into uncharted territory.

“This is a very important chance for us because the players can have good experience and build up their confidence on such a big stage,” Kim said. “And at the same time the club can also raise the status through this international tournament.”

I’ve always thought football is everything in my life.
Kim Ho Kon, Ulsan Hyundai coach.

'Ironclad mace'
If the coach’s strategy was about choice and concentration, his tactics are based on the league’s meanest defence and deadliest counter-attacks. This is summarised as ‘the ironclad mace football’ by local media, with their resolute and ruthless playing style resembling the medieval weapon.

In fact, the Tigers conceded only 29 goals in 30 matches last season before storming into the championship final. Korea Republic internationals Kwak Taehwi and Kang Minsoo were at the core of Ulsan’s stubborn rearguard, while defensive midfielders Ko Seulki and Colombian Juan Estiven Velez were ever-presents in Kim’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.

Along with the new recruits mentioned above, wingers Lee Keunho and Kim Seungyong arrived at Munsu after their stints in the J.League, and their former Gamba Osaka team-mate Rafinha joined the Tigers this summer to reinforce the attack led by colossal striker Kim Shinwook.

For all the talent in this formidable side, it is fair to say that Ulsan could not have made this stage without the presence of coach Kim who is regarded as a father figure within the group. “I began my coaching career relatively earlier than my peers did, and I’ve always thought football is everything in my life,” said Kim, who received a timely boost by winning the AFC’s coach of the year award and a subsequent contract extension this week.

“I always communicate with players talking about their strengths and weaknesses, and their future on and off the pitch as well. This gives me another chance to think about my football life and how to lead it in the future.”