Seongnam take Asia by storm
South Korea's number one group Girl's Generation have spent much of the autumn wowing fans in Tokyo and climbing up the Japanese charts. The 11 men of Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma may not be quite as easy on the eye as the nine singing and dancing sensations but the K-League team showed on Saturday night in Tokyo, when beating Zob Ahan of Iran 3-1 in the Asian Champions League final, that they have the moves when it comes to winning in the Japanese capital and could even show the likes of Yuri, Sunny and Jessica a thing or two about conquering the continent.
It was a record ninth Asian club title for South Korea and a fifth in succession for East Asia. Little went right for West Asia on the night, apart from a couple of spells, and while Seongnam's goals may have been scrappy, the win was deserved.
The majority of the 27,000 fans (though the real figure seemed higher) who attended the final, only the second decider since the competition was revamped in 2003 to be held as a one-off match at a neutral venue, thought so. There have been doubts as to whether the switch, from the old home and away system, should have been made but to be at Tokyo's National Stadium on Saturday was to satisfy one's senses. The action was entertaining, the atmosphere was enjoyable, the Asian food festival outside offered fare to match and if you needed to wash it all down or soak it all in with a cold beer, a host of enthusiastic young women were only too happy to bring it to your seat.
Seongnam don't do beer very well (the 'Meakcol' that is on the front of the team's shirt advertises an unlikely alcohol-free beer-flavour cola drink) but when the team is in the Land of the Rising Sun, it guarantees a following that is far from flat. If you are going to go for the neutral venue in Japan and if there is an absence of a J-League team to attract and enthuse the locals, then Seongnam are always going to be the next best bet.
Apart from the considerable financial backing, being owned by the Unification Church, also known as the Moonies, has another advantage, namely a healthy contingent of church members in Japan that never fail to turn out to support the Yellows. They did just that and the cries of "Seongnam" were soon echoing around downtown Tokyo on a pleasant November evening, one perfect for football. They never quite managed, however, to drown out the vociferous, almost 1,000-strong, Iranian section.
Those white-shirted fans, who were applauded by the Seongnam players soon after the final whistle, were surprised to see their heroes fail to stick to the script that had earned rave reviews on the way to Tokyo. Zob Ahan are a team that score few and concede less. The mantra from the men from Isfahan was that they were organised, disciplined and solid and if you didn't believe them you could go and watch DVDs of their semi-final triumph over Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, with its 1-0 victory both home and away a perfect example of tournament play as the Seongnam camp admiringly admitted before the match. But after a reasonable start, Zob Ahan struggled against the movement of the Koreans and soon found themselves chasing the game - the last thing they wanted to do.
The approach play may have been attractive but Seongnam's goals were less aesthetically pleasing, not that anyone in the Korean camp really cared. Sasa Ognenovski's opener after 25 minutes came after the Iranians failed to deal with a throw-in and the Australian, called up for the national team for the first time last week, stabbed home from close range, though he had been in two minds as to whether stay up for the play at all. Seven minutes after the break, central defensive partner Cho Byung-kuk headed home a simple second.
It looked to be game over. Zob Ahan's game is more suited to protecting narrow leads rather than overcoming deficits. "I told the players that if we scored early in the game then Zob Ahan would struggle to come back at us," said a beaming Ognenovski after the game. "It was a tough game though … and it was unbelievable to score and then lift the trophy."
Ognenovski was named man of the match and man of the tournament, quite an accolade for a defender, and at such a happy time in his career, he will not mind too much if it is pointed out that Maurico Molina deserves a mention. The Colombian not only scored seven and created a few along the way but he was a constant thorn in the side, especially the right side, of Zob Ahan. "He is a great player," said Zob Ahan's crestfallen Brazilian striker Igor Castro. "He was dangerous all through the game and he made it very difficult for us but we didn't do what we normally do so well, defend crosses into the area. That is why we lost."
With the score 2-0, Molina, the Medellin menace, came close more than once to ending the game as a contest and midway through the second half, it was Seongnam who seemed likelier to score a third than Zob Ahan to manage a first. But at that point the Iranians got right back in the game thanks to a classy finish from Mohammadreza Khalatabari. For a time, Seongnam were rocking on their heels and just before Kim Ho-cheol sealed the win with eight minutes remaining, the Koreans were starting to give the impression of a team hanging on.
That was all forgotten in the end by Seongnam boss Shin Tae-yong who was celebrating becoming the first man to lift the title as a player, in 1995, and a coach. Not only that, both were achieved at the same club.
"I am almost speechless and very happy," said Shin, with one half of that statement obviously more accurate than the other. "I have won as a player before and now as a head coach but I am happier tonight. As a player I had belief that we could become champion but since I became a head coach I did not think that I would ever have this opportunity to participate in a major tournament like this. So to become champion as a coach it is twice as good as when I won as a player so I am very happy."
If the coach is happy then his compatriots are too. It ends an excellent year for South Korea -a good World Cup, a world championship for the Under-17 women and yet another title in the Asian Champions League.
It is not yet over as Seongnam will travel to Abu Dhabi in December for the Club World Cup and a possible clash with Inter. If the fixture comes to pass, the Italians will be wise not to underestimate the Koreans who may still be behind Girl's Generation in the Japanese popularity stakes but are capable of stealing a march on the pop stars when it comes to the world stage.