The AFC Champions League returned to Korea Republic for the first time in three years on Saturday as Pohang Steelers defeated Saudi giants Al Ittihad 2-1 in Tokyo's National Stadium. Pohang smashed the recent dominance of Japanese clubs to claim continental glory and in the process sealed their place at next month's FIFA Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
The four-time Korean champions are no strangers on the international scene having won consecutive Asian Club championships in 1997 and 1998. Indeed, the weekend's win allowed Pohang to claim a unique place in the Asian club hierarchy by becoming the first side to earn three continental titles.
Saudi club Al Ittihad, the only team who have twice won the AFC Champions League since its inauguration in 2003, started this year's decider as favourites. Indeed the Jeddah-based side initially justified the tag by carving out more dangerous chances in the opening half.
The Saudis continued in the same vein after the interval and came close to breaking the deadlock on 47 minutes when Amine Chermiti's glancing header cannoned off the crossbar. The 21-year-old striker saw another glorious chance go begging soon after when he blazed over despite being unmarked.
Al Ittihad came to regret their profligacy as the Koreans took an unlikely lead three minutes later; No Byung-Jun's right-footed free-kick sneaking through the Saudi wall and into the right bottom corner. The goal sparked Pohang into life and their offensive efforts yielded a second goal within nine minutes. Kim Jae-Sung's free-kick from the right found Kim Hyung-il, who headed his side into a 2-0 lead. Al Ittihad threw everything forward, with Mohammed Noor pulling one back with 16 minutes remaining. However, Pohang held their nerves despite some late pressure.
"Al Ittihad proved to be a very good side with excellent technique and it was a tough game", said jubilant Pohang coach Sergio Farias. "But we were able to score from set pieces and that was probably their weakness today."
For his opposite number, Argentinian Gabriel Calderon, it was a case of lamenting spurned opportunities to score. "We were able to create plenty of chances but we couldn't capitalise on any. This is basically the reason why we lost."
In a sense, this triumph is the culmination of Pohang's rebuilding process chiefly masterminded by no other than Brazilian Farias. One of the dominant K-league sides in the 1980's and 1990's, Pohang plunged into the doldrums in the early part of this decade. They slowly clawed their way back amongst the country's elite, finishing runners-up in the 2004 season.
After assuming the reins in 2005, the former Brazilian U-20 coach had guided Pohang to the K-league title within two years, their first in a decade-and-a-half. After winning the Korean FA Cup in 2008 and the League Cup two months ago, the 42-year-old set his sights on the only piece of silverware missing from the trophy cabinet.
This he also achieved, although Pohang defied numerous odds in the process, sweeping aside the likes of Australia's Newcastle Jets, Uzbekistan powerhouse Bunyodkor and Qatar's Umm Salal en route to the final.
Now with the FIFA Club World Cup beckoning, Farias believes the Asian success will provide a catalyst for greater achievements. "This victory proves that Korean football is evolving and I hope it will trigger the players and the clubs to embark on further improving their football."