For the first time in their 15 years of existence, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have won the K-League title. Having finished on top of the regular season table last month, the Motors beat Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 3-1 at home on Sunday following a goalless draw in the first leg of the championship final four days earlier.
It was a fitting finale for Jeonbuk, who dominated the league throughout the year with consistent displays of attacking, fluid football. The Motors scored no fewer than 59 goals in 28 games this season, with leading marksman Lee Dong-Gook netting 20 times and Luiz Henrique setting up 12 to top the respective charts.
But the man who stole the show on Sunday was another Brazilian, Eninho whose brace gave the hosts a seemingly unassailable two-goal lead at the interval. Lee Dong-Gook took his tally to 21 goals from the spot to make it 3-0 in the second half, and although Cho Dong-Gun pulled one back for Seongnam with six minutes remaining it was too little, too late.
Jeonbuk’s first ever K-League trophy will be displayed in their cabinet alongside three Korean FA Cups – from 2000, 2003, and 2005 – as well as the 2006 AFC Champions League trophy. In fact, the Motors had been known as a 'cup team' because of their tendency to focus on short-term competitions while struggling in mid-table of the domestic championship for over a decade.
New signings make their mark
However, a duo acquired from none other than Seongnam over the January transfer window has made a telling difference, with defensive midfielder Kim Sang-Sik now wearing the captain’s armband and Lee Dong-Gook determined to revive his career on the domestic stage following a disappointing spell at Middlesbrough. The former was virtually an ever-present in all competitions that Jeonbuk took part in this season, while the latter finally proved his worth by winning the Golden Boot for the first time since his professional debut season in 1998.
“My personal goal at the beginning of the season was to score 15-20 goals but I wasn’t sure,” said Lee. “But as it turned out, my team-mates were able to create so many chances for me and I was convinced that I could score as many goals if only I could concentrate. Of course, I couldn’t have achieved this had the coach not trusted in me in the first place.”
With the inspirational wingers of the Champions League winning side three years ago – Yeom Ki-Hun and Kim Heung-Bum – transferred to Ulsan and sidelined due to a serious injuries, coach Choi Kang-Hee brought in Luiz Henrique from Suwon and Choi Tae-Uk from Pohang last year. Joining them in midfield was Eninho, who had registered 17 goals and 8 assists for Daegu last season. And the trio did a tremendous job, netting 31 times while setting up as many goals this time around.
“We’ve gone through a very tough time to stand here on top of the K-League. There were hard times of despair and headaches,” said Choi Kang-Hee, who took the reins of the Motors in the summer of 2005. “You need a few good players to win the championship, and even if you have them it takes time to achieve good results. Jeonbuk are based far away from the capital and cannot afford to invest a lot of money. Although we failed [last season], we could build up on the experience and maintain our momentum from the kick-off of this season.”
“My players were the first ones that came to my mind when the final whistle blew. All I could tell them was ‘sorry and thanks’ at that moment,” Choi continued. “I’m sorry because I said harsh things when we were up front from the beginning, and I thank them for trying hard to stay on top throughout the season.”