Jeonbuk’s championship pedigree passes another test for record-setting title

SEOUL-- The greatest dynasty in South Korean football history is still alive and well.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors secured their record-setting fifth straight championship in the K League 1 on Sunday with a 2-0 victory over Jeju United at home in Jeonju, some 240 kilometers south of Seoul. For the third straight season, Jeonbuk left Ulsan Hyundai FC in second place.

Jeonbuk's fifth consecutive title and nine championships overall are both K League records.

Of Jeonbuk's five straight titles during this current run, this one may have been the most unexpected.

The team had lost the reigning league MVP, Son Jun-ho, during the offseason, as the gritty midfielder bolted for China. Veteran striker Lee Dong-gook retired and another forward Cho Gue-sung, anointed as the club's next big thing, began his mandatory military service in February.

And Ulsan looked primed to finally end Jeonbuk's run. Under new head coach Hong Myung-bo, Ulsan boasted an enviable mix of veteran savvy and youthful exuberance, something that Jeonbuk had been able to count on in recent years.

Jeonbuk hit a rough patch in spring as they stumbled through a seven-match winless skid, their longest such drought in 14 years. At the end of May, Jeonbuk found themselves in third place, six points back of Ulsan.

But Jeonbuk quickly righted the ship. They won four of their next five matches and then strung together a seven-match undefeated run from September to early November.

That streak included a 3-2 victory over Ulsan on Nov. 6. Stanislav Iljutcenko scored just seconds before the final whistle to give Jeonbuk a crucial three-point lead over Ulsan in the tables. Jeonbuk's 3-2 loss to Suwon FC on Nov. 21 gave Ulsan a ray of hope, but Jeonbuk finished the deal with Sunday's victory.

"There has not been an easy moment the whole season," said Jeonbuk head coach Kim Sang-sik, who won the title in his first season in charge after seven years as an assistant. "The seven-match winless streak was particularly tough to handle, but in the end, we were able to make history in front of our fans. This is such a gratifying moment."

The term "championship DNA" in sports is probably overused, but Jeonbuk, more than other South Korean sports teams in recent memory, deserved to be credited with having those genes, however nebulous the term may be.

"We didn't get (championship mettle) overnight. These players know how to win, because they've done it so often," Kim said. "They understand what it takes to win championships and how they should play to make it happen. That's part of Jeonbuk's championship DNA."

Kim said beating Ulsan on Nov. 6 in their final meeting of the season was the biggest turning point of the campaign. Jeonbuk had only managed two draws and a loss against Ulsan in three previous meetings.

Iljutcenko played the hero in that match. He left Pohang Steelers to join Jeonbuk over the winter and made an immediate impact for his new club with a five-match goal scoring streak from March to April.

But he was hobbled by an ankle injury in the second half of the season, and fellow forward Gustavo picked up the slack.

Gustavo had one goal in his first 13 matches. But powered by a four-goal outburst on June 6, Gustavo ended up with 15 goals for the season.

Iljutcenko also had 15 to share the team lead with Gustavo, as the duo combined for 30 of Jeonbuk's league-best 71 goals.

Iljutcenko is one of several new faces that thrived with Jeonbuk. Former FC Barcelona youth player Paik Seung-ho signed with Jeonbuk in late March amid some controversy over his previous commitment to another K League club, Suwon Samsung Bluewings. But such outside noise quickly died down as Paik quickly established himself as an important midfielder.

Up front, Song Min-kyu, the 2021 K League 1 Young Player of the Year, left Pohang for Jeonbuk in July. He overcame a sluggish start to his Jeonbuk tenure, and fans will forget about some of Song's early matches anyway, after he netted Jeonbuk's second goal in Sunday's title-clinching victory.

Jeonbuk have had a long-standing reputation as one of K League's deadliest offenses, and even without some key pieces from last year, they lived up to that billing by leading the competition in goals in 2021.

They were also the league's stingiest defense, having conceded just 37 goals in 38 matches, thanks in large part to their captain, Hong Jeong-ho.

Hong was just the type of shutdown defender that championship teams need. The 32-year-old played in 36 out of 38 matches as the rock on the backline. And though he only scored two goals, those were two of Jeonbuk's most important goals of this year.

On Sept. 5, he netted an injury-time winner to lift Jeonbuk past FC Seoul 4-3. Then last Sunday, he scored Jeonbuk's first goal in their 2-0 win over Daegu FC, a win that, combined with Ulsan's draw versus Suwon Samsung Bluewings the same day, put Jeonbuk up by two points heading into the season finale.

Head coach Kim thought so highly of Hong's performance on the field and his leadership qualities off the pitch that, during a post championship interview, he declared the defender his team's most valuable player this season.

And at the annual awards ceremony Tuesday, Hong could become the first defender to win the league MVP award in 24 years.

Kim thanked a pair of other 30-something defenders, Lee Yong and Choi Chul-soon, for their leadership and sacrifices. And even as those veterans start to fade away, Jeonbuk will continue to take cracks at championships, the coach added.

"Maybe it would have been difficult (to ask the ownership for new players) if we hadn't won the title this year. But now that we're champions again, I believe they will help us acquire some good players," Kim said. "Though we've won five titles in a row, we won't be doing this every year. So we need players that can help us over the next 10 years."

Source: Yonhap News Agency