When Sergio Farias assumed the Pohang Steelers reins at the beginning of the 2005 season, he had to start from scratch after ten years working in his homeland. And although the Brazilian was not the first K-League coach to talk through interpreters, he was the first foreigner to occupy the hot-seat at the Steelyard, home to one of Korea Republic's oldest and most successful clubs.
It was clear that, after finishing as runners-up the previous season, Farias's task was to guide Pohang to their fourth K-League title and first since 1992. It was a feat he achieved in 2007, before leading them to the Korean FA Cup in 2008 and the League Cup in September.
These admirable achievements, especially in short-term tournaments, have been described as ‘Farias magic' by the local media. In fact, few other words could explain how the Steelers have become such a formidable side in a short period of time. Aside from his straightforward and attack-minded approach to the game, the former Brazil U-17 coach has become renowned for unpredictable team selections and inspired substitutions.
Farias attributes Pohang's success to their strength in depth. "It's important to manage [the rotation of] the players so they can recover from fatigue as soon as possible," he explained recently as his side go in search of an historic treble.
With Pohang scheduled to play an average of two games per week since the All-Star break, Farias turned his attention to the players on the bench and in the reserves, and some of them have responded by establishing themselves as automatics in his first team. This has paid dividends, with the Steelers currently enjoying an unprecedented 24-match unbeaten streak at home in all competitions.
However, even for the all-conquering Farias, it was not easy to translate Pohang's domestic success on to the continental stage. His first season in the AFC Champions League came to a premature end last year, when the Steelers suffered an early exit from the group stage following back-to-back defeats by eventual runners-up Adelaide United.
And when Pohang kicked off this year's campaign with a goalless draw against Central Coast Mariners, few expected them to make a splash. However, after a 3-2 win over the Mariners at home, in which Brazilian ace Denilson scored a hat-trick, the South Koreans beat Kawasaki Frontale 2-0 to win their group. A 6-0 drubbing of Newcastle Jets set up the meeting with Bunyodkor in the quarter-finals, where Farias's men recovered a two-goal deficit from the first leg to win the tie with an unlikely 4-1 victory at home.
By that time, Farias had already become the longest-serving foreign coach in the K-League, and Pohang wasted no time in renewing his contract, which will keep him at the Steelyard until 2011. The 42-year-old justified this faith by masterminding their 4-1 aggregate defeat of Umm-Salal in the semi-finals last month, which left them one step away from becoming Asian champions for the third time.
Following his 100th victory at the Pohang helm last week, Farias reflected on his challenge in the Far East. "I didn't realise I'd won 100 games already, and to be honest I didn't think I would last for five seasons when I first came to Korea," he said. "But I needed a new challenge on a new stage, and after the first season I came to believe that we could win trophies here. For the last five years, both Pohang and myself have grown."
If Farias can inspire Pohang to glory in the AFC Champions League final in Tokyo, a one-legged affair against Saudi giants Al Ittihad on Saturday, it will be the capstone of what has been a magnificent tenure.