It wasn’t quite the final that the Asian Football Confederation would have had in mind last March as 28 teams from all over the giant continent kicked off the 2006 Asian Champions League.
The final between Syria’s Al Karama and South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, is like FC Copenhagen and Middlesbrough doing battle in the final of UEFA’s equivalent competition. The unfashionable teams meet on November 1 and 8 to battle it out for the continental championship.
An added bonus is that the victorious team will represent Asia a month later at FIFA’s Club World Club Championship. A victory over ten-time Mexican champions Club America would earn either Jeonbuk or Al Karama a semi-final with European champions Barcelona.
Football is nothing if not a funny old game as Jeonbuk have shown this Keluaran Sgp season. The 2005 Korean FA Cup winners wanted to withdraw from the competition in April as parent company Hyundai Motors ordered them to cut costs. With the travel expenses involved in traveling to China, Japan and Vietnam in the first rounds, the Motors fingered the Champions League as an unnecessary drain on resources.
Upon learning of the financial penalty that would incurred upon withdrawal, the team from the medium-sized south-western city of Jeonju changed their plans. According to the laws of football, their progress to the final has since looked increasingly inevitable. That impression has been reinforced a number of times so far in the competition as on four occasions the team has been on the brink of elimination only to progress in dramatic fashion.
After coming back twice to defeat Japanese champions Gamba Osaka, the last game of the group stage saw the Motors trailing at home 1-0 to Dalian Shide with 25 minutes left in a game they had to win.
Three goals in the remaining time sent the Korean team through to the last eight. While the money men may have winced on the sidelines, the diehard fans known as the “Mad Green Boys” were singing and dancing the whole game and not just because they had been promised a new clubhouse if Jeonbuk win the title.
In Asian football, topping a group containing the Chinese and Japanese champions is not to be sneezed at, particularly for a team that has struggled in the domestic 2005 and 2006 K-League campaign. A 3-0 defeat the Sunday prior to the first leg, sent Jeonbuk to the bottom.
Jeonbuk’s Jekyll-and-Hyde season continued. After being treated to many poor and unimaginative displays domestically, the club’s fans had a hard time recognising the aggressive, imaginative and intense football on those Wednesday evenings.
There was too much aggression on show in the first leg of the quarter-final at Shanghai Shenhua as influential midfielders Botti and Kim Hyeung-bom were sent off in the Hongkou Stadium. The Koreans were relieved to head home with just a fine Gao Lin goal separating the two teams. The in-form striker struck again in the second leg and all hope seemed to disappear as Jeonbuk needed three goals to win. They got four though the sending off of Li Weifeng no doubt helped their cause.
Jeonbuk found themselves in the semi-final and pitted against fellow K-Leaguers Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I. The Tigers were strong favourites and it was easy to see why.
After Lee Chun-soo returned from Spain in July 2005, Ulsan steamrolled their way to the title at the end of the year with the winger in excellent form. In August’s East Asian Champions Cup, the team destroyed the Japanese and Chinese title holders with a 6-0 thrashing of Gamba Osaka in Yokohama followed by a 4-0 win over Dalian Shide. The quarter-final of the Champions League brought the supposedly dangerous Saudi Arabian champs to town. However, Al Shabab went back to Riyadh devastated that they had been thrashed 6-0, and relieved that it wasn’t more. The Tigers won 1-0 in the return leg in the Saudi capital and then 3-2 in the first leg of the semi-final at Jeonbuk.
Naturally, with a 3-2 win and home advantage to follow, the smart money was on Ulsan to negotiate the second leg with the minimum of fuss and book a place in the final. Club officials were already talking about the potential scheduling clash of the Club World Championship and the Doha Asian Games.
They needn’t have worried as the usually tight back-line went AWOL twice in the first half to allow two unchallenged Jeonbuk players to head home. With their noses in front, the Motors never looked back. Ulsan had a hatful of chances but the visitors made the trip westwards across the southern half of the Korean peninsula with a 4-1 victory and a place in the final.
Now Jeonbuk are in the final, it is difficult to predict what will happen. The team has come so far against the odds that there is a danger that, with the prize so close, they may fall on their faces.…