Defender overcomes pressure to captain Jeonbuk to historic K League title
SEOUL-- Voted by his teammates as the new captain before this season, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors defender Hong Jeong-ho had an impossible act to follow.
Hong's predecessor, Lee Dong-gook, had retired in 2020 as the all-time leading scorer in K League history. He had been on eight championship teams with Jeonbuk, including four in a row starting in 2017.
The stress of trying to extend that streak to five had kept Hong up at night for the past week or so. But all that weight came off Hong's broad shoulders Sunday, as Jeonbuk defeated Jeju United 2-0 to secure their record-setting fifth consecutive K League 1 championship.
And all the bottled-up emotions inside Hong came flowing out during the victory celebration.
"I haven't been sleeping well for about a week. We absolute had to win this title," Hong said. "We had our ups and downs throughout the year, but in the end, we were able to shake off the pressure."
Hong admitted to feeling the burden of following in Lee's footsteps.
"Dong-gook was such an excellent captain. I was just trying to do half as well as he did and lean on other veterans for help," Hong said. "And when I saw the face of the coach (Kim Sang-sik) after the match, I just lost it. I was under a lot of pressure, but I wanted to do well as captain, because my teammates and coaching staff voted for me."
And before the match, it was Lee himself who paid a surprise visit to the locker room and kept Jeonbuk, players, including Hong, loose.
"When we first arrived at the stadium, we were all quiet and serious," Hong said. "Then Dong-gook showed up and said, 'Now that I am here, you guys are going to win today. Congratulations in advance!' And that really put my mind at ease. It gave the team confidence that we could do this."
Hong played an instrumental role in shaping Jeonbuk into the league's toughest defense. They gave up a league-low 37 goals in 38 matches this season and won their final two games of the season by 2-0.
Kim Sang-sik on Sunday singled out Hong as the club's most valuable player. Hong is also nominated for the league MVP award, with the winner scheduled to be unveiled during a ceremony in Seoul on Tuesday.
Having captained Jeonbuk to a historic championship, Hong could become the first defender in 24 years to be named MVP in the K League.
"I've played every match like it's my last, and thankfully, I've been able to stay healthy for the full season," Hong said. "It's a great opportunity for me, and I'd love to win it. I am going to dress up for the ceremony."
Source: Yonhap News Agency