‘No pain, no gain’. This seemed to become something of a new club motto for Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma FC on Wednesday night in Abu Dhabi. The source of their pain was obvious: a 3-0 defeat to FC Internazionale Milano had not been in the script for a team who genuinely believed they could take home the trophy. As for what they had gained, well, that was more subtle. But according to their players, it was no less significant.

While a final appearance would undoubtedly have boosted the club’s prestige and profile, defeat to the European champions offered something else altogether: a standard to aspire to. And although the Asians were hardly outclassed in a match in which they registered over twice as many efforts on goal as their Italian conquerors, they were ultimately taught a harsh lesson. As Mauricio Molina later acknowledged, it was a lesson in efficiency.

“The difference was that they took their chances and we didn’t take ours,” he told FIFA.com. “If you look at the game, Inter really didn’t have many opportunities, but those they did have they took very well. For me, that’s the difference between a big team and the likes of ourselves, who hope to become a big team. Asian football has improved a lot in recent years and here in Abu Dhabi I think we have played some very nice football and shown a good style of play. But we also know what we lack, and above all it’s the experience that teams like Inter have in abundance. Tonight, they showed that that’s where the gap is between us.”

I think Koreans have proved that we really do belong at these big tournaments. Our football is really on the up.

Seongnam midfielder Choi Sung-Kuk

That such a disparity exists is hardly surprising. Seongnam, after all, celebrated its 21st birthday this year; Inter are a 102-year-old giant, with all the titles, history and lustre that befits one of Europe’s most fabled football institutions. Nonetheless, there remained a belief in the Seongnam camp that the Italians could have been given a scare had their nerves not been settled inside the first three minutes.

“The early goal made a big difference to both sides,” was the view of Seongnam midfielder Choi Sung-Kuk. “If we had not conceded at that stage, I’m sure we could have given Inter a much better challenge. As it was, I think that made us tense. We didn’t express ourselves as normal and that meant it took us a long time to create any good chances. But I think we all learned a lot. You could see how good Inter’s movement is and how intelligent they are. It was very impressive.”

Having licked their wounds and hopefully learned their lessons, Seongnam must now shift their focus from one Inter to another, with Sport Club Internacional of Brazil lying in wait in Saturday’s third-place play-off. And while a bronze medal is rarely more than a consolation prize, Molina – who spent a year with Santos before moving to Korea – believes that taking the final spot on the podium here in UAE would represent a “huge achievement” for his Asian club.

Choi also pointed out that, regardless of the outcome against the South American champions, 2010 has left everyone in Korean football with much to be thankful for. “I think we can be very proud,” he said. “It has been a very good year for Korean football, with the World Cup, our own success in the Champions League and with our national women’s teams also doing very well. So I think Koreans have proved that we really do belong at these big tournaments. Our football is definitely on the up.”