New-look Seongnam reach the summit

Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma’s fairytale success in claiming the 2010 AFC Champions League crown, and their journey to the top, brings with it a raft of intrigue. How could the most successful club side in Korea Republic be at the same time one of the least popular teams in the domestic league? Why did the club appoint legendary Shin Tae-Yong as coach last year, having let the former captain leave the club six years ago? How could Seongnam outlast the other three quarter-finalists from the K-League – namely Jeonbuk Motors, Pohang Steelers and Suwon Bluewings – to win the continental title, despite being regarded as the weakest among the so-called big four?

In fact, under the guidance of the newly-appointed coach, Seongnam have been seeking to transform themselves this year: their new ground at Tancheon just finished renovation in time for the 2010 season and a foreigner received the captaincy for the first time in the club’s history. More recently, they even changed the colours of their home kit's shorts and socks from navy blue to red.

“When you have a new coach, new things will happen," captain Sasa Ognenovski told "Obviously he [Shin] is trying to bring his own style to the team and the club, so it may attract more supporters, more support from outside, not only relying on the people that have been here for a long time. He’s a young manager so he has a different outlook on the old Korean style. I think it’s good and fresh for Korea. I see younger coaches in the K-League changing the system and the mentality a little bit.”

One of the first things Shin did upon his arrival was to shake off his old image of charismatic and wayward skipper, and to mingle with his players old and new. The man who used to be known as ‘the fox on the pitch’ led Seongnam to finishing runners-up in the national championship and the Korean FA Cup respectively in his first year in charge, before becoming the first Korean to have won the continental title as both a player and a coach with their 3-1 victory over Zob Ahan in Tokyo on Saturday.

Balance the key to success
“You have to have the right balance,” explained Ognenovski, who has crowned a stunning rise from semi-professional football four years ago in his native Australia to being named the Most Valuable Player of this year's AFC Champions League. “You could have a team that is either too young or too old, but neither of them is good.

“We have some good, experienced players in the team and younger players respect and listen to them, and then the whole team can do well. Because fearless, young players bring excitement to the team whereas older players understand the game a bit better in difficult situations. We, the older ones, are riding the boat together with them.”

After experiencing some choppy waters in recent years the Seongnam boat is now steering smoothly in the right direction. Despite losing some of the key players through suspension and international duty this month, Seongnam have not only reached the play-offs in the K-League but also claimed a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup.

“We will keep marching on. I’m confident that we’ll do better in the K-League play-offs after the missing players have come back,” Shin said in reference to Dzenan Radoncic and Cheon Kwang-Jin, who were both suspended for the Champions League decider. “We fear nobody. We’ll also be at full strength at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi with all the best players back in the team. I want to show the rest of the world that Asian football is no longer the outsiders but among the world’s best. That’s what I’d like to prove.”