Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma are no longer the club side you used to know. Though the seven-time Korean champions are regarded as perennial contenders for the K-League, Seongnam have undergone a series of changes with mixed results in recent years. In the process Chunma seemed to have lost the glitter of their glory days in the past two decades, during which the winged horses dominated the domestic stage with three consecutive championships.
However, their current coach Shin Tae-Yong has been there and done that. The former Seongnam captain served his club for 13 seasons before leaving at the end of 2004. It took four years for Shin to wrap up his coaching apprenticeship in Australia and return to take the reins at Seongnam. By the time he came back home last year, the club had already moved its arena to Tancheon Sports Complex nearby the old municipal stadium, where Shin painfully watched from the bench as his side went down 5-0 at the hands of Al Ittihad in the second leg of the 2004 AFC Champions League final.
A lot has been said and written about the new coach’s eccentricity – including his celebration for the first home win in a wrestler outfit, and directing his tactics from the stands through a walkie-talkie – but the recent transition Shin has brought about could not be better advocated by anyone other than Sasa Ognenovski. The giant Australian central defender is wearing the captain’s armband this season after Shin persuaded him to join the club from Down Under last year.
“It’s a very big honour for a foreign player to captain this great club that has won most trophies in Korea, and one of the most well-known clubs in Asia,” Ognenovski told FIFA.com. “I was surprised at first because I thought maybe it would go to a Korean player. I guess the coach saw something that he liked and thought I would help the team by wearing the armband. You have to be a leader, not only on the matchday but also during training. Being the oldest player you must also help the younger players.”
Breaking with tradition
That is not the only reason Ognenovski is the skipper at the moment, even though hierarchy is a traditional virtue in Korea. In fact, Shin, who was a living legend in his playing days scoring 99 goals in 401 club matches, does not seem to stick to old values.
“I think he’s done a very good job as coach," explained the 31-year-old. "Last year he changed the whole team, I think he kept only four or five players from the old Seongnam team. Last year we lost three or four players and this year two or three, but we still made the final of the Champions League and qualified for the national play-offs. So we remain very competitive in Asia and in the K-League despite losing almost half of the starting team.”
Despite having to survive with a trimmed squad, Seongnam have consistently performed well in both domestic and continental competition. Shin has always stressed the importance of regarding every match as a final, and the earnest approach is paying off at the end of his second season.
“I think to reach any final is exceptionally difficult. To reach the Champions League final is very hard, whether it’s European, Asian or South American, it’s so hard to reach any final of any club competition,” said Ognenovski, who has experience of a continental final when his previous club Adelaide United lost to Gamba Osaka two years ago. “So to reach the final with two different teams is really exciting for me and hopefully this time in Tokyo we will come away with the trophy.”
In fact, there is another reason why he should lift the trophy. Ognenovski this week received his first call-up to the Australian national team for next Wednesday's international against Egypt, though Shin jokingly told his captain he would not be allowed to go unless Seongnam win the Champions League.
Regardless of international distractions, Ognenovski, who has always led by example, is keen to prove what the Pegasus are capable of on the greatest stage in Asia. “I don't talk too much even in real life so I’m not a very talkative captain who’s going to shout ‘come on’ or something like that. I try to show more on the ground, and even when I was in Australia I didn’t pull players aside and tell them what to do. My actions are louder than my words.”