Third time lucky for Pohang
Pohang Steelers ended a 15-year title drought, completing a 4-1 aggregate victory over defending champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in the final to lift the Korean K-League trophy. Having already won the first leg 3-1 at home, the Steelers made sure of their fourth domestic crown with Brazilian forward Cleber Schwenck's scoring the only goal of the game on Sunday.
The result came as sweet revenge to the Steelers, who were losing finalists against the Pegasus in 1995. With the series tied after the second leg in Pohang, where the two sides fought out an epic 3-3 draw, it was Ilhwa who finally lifted the trophy thanks to an extra-time golden goal in a deciding game played on neutral ground.
Pohang went tantalisingly close in 2004 as well. This time, however, Suwon Samsung Bluewings held the Steelers to goalless draws in both legs and ultimately won their third title after a dramatic penalty shootout, where the final spot-kick from former Korea Republic goalkeeper Kim Byung-Ji was denied by his successor in the national team, Lee Woon-Jae.
Suwon proved to be Pohang's nemesis again two years later,
eliminating the Steelers with a 1-0 win in the play-off semi-final.
But it was the other way round this year.
After finishing fifth in the regular season, Pohang beat their South-eastern neighbours Gyeongnam FC on penalties and then overcame Ulsan Hyundai Horangi 2-1 to set up another thrilling encounter with Suwon. Against the mighty Bluewings, it was Pohang who this time managed to finish up 1-0 winners thanks to a goal from Park Won-Jae.
Even seven-time winners Seongnam could not stop them. The star-studded champions, who had been resting for three weeks after clinching pole position, were stunned by a 3-1 defeat in Pohang last week, before going down at home on Sunday.
Pohang, the first Korean club to introduce a football-only stadium and a youth academy, are still writing the history of Korean football. Not only have they become the first side to win the title after finishing fifth, but they can also win an unprecedented league and FA Cup double if they beat Chunnam Dragons in this season's concluding match later this month.
In his third year in charge, Sergio Farias masterminded Pohang's fairy tale run to the championship, utilising a free-flowing brand of attacking football. Although Lee Dong-Gook's move to Middlesbrough FC earlier this year was a hard act to follow, the Brazilian filled the gap in the summer with his compatriots Schwenck and Jonhes, who scored a goal apiece in a 3-2 win over Incheon United that sealed fifth place for the Steelers.
Another Brazilian, Tavares, orchestrated Pohang's attack with 11 assists this season, while homegrown talents like Park Won-Jae and Hwang Jin-Sung have played important roles in midfield. The former, in particular, has come in for big praise from his coach: "We don't have star players in Pohang but everybody here is willing to give their all and sacrifice for the team. Especially Won-Jae has been most impressive and consistent throughout the season."
Despite the requests from fans across the nation that Farias should be appointed as the new coach of Korea Republic, the 39-year-old is likely to renew his contract with the Steelers. "Nothing is confirmed at the moment but I'd like to stay in Pohang," said an upbeat Farias after the final. "I hope we will be together again. Let's go to Tokyo (the venue for the FIFA Club World Cup) next year!"
It is a measure of Farias' ambition that he is already
looking beyond the domestic stage and towards continental glory
with Pohang, who won the Asian Club Championship in 1997 and 1998.
K-League: Post-regular season results;
Saturday 20 October
Gyeongnam FC 1-1 Pohang Steelers (aet 1-1, Pohang win 4-3 on penalties)
Sunday 21 October
Ulsan Hyundai Horangi 2-0 Daejeon Citizen
Sunday 28 October
Ulsan Hyundai Horangi 1-2 Pohang Steelers
Wednesday 31 October
Suwon Samsung Bluewings 0-1 Pohang Steelers
Sunday 4 November
Pohang Steelers 3-1 Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma
Sunday 11 November
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 0-1 Pohang Steelers