New coach for K League runners-up looking to instill ‘winning mentality’

SEOUL, South Korean football icon Hong Myung-bo has taken his first K League coaching job with Ulsan Hyundai FC, a talented team that finished in second place in both of the past two years. He has a straightforward, if daunting, task ahead: just win that elusive title.
Ulsan have always had a deep squad but they haven’t been able to put it together and dethrone Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who’ve won four straight titles.
In his introductory press conference on Thursday, Hong said he wants to instill a “winning mentality” in his players for the upcoming season and beyond.
“I’ll talk to the players about having that desire to win,” Hong said in a virtual press conference streamed on Ulsan’s YouTube channel. “I want to stress the importance of professionalism. It’s frustrating that we haven’t been able to get over that hump the last two years.”
Hong was one of the most beloved South Korean athletes in his time, and the former defender cemented his legacy as the captain of the national team that marched into the semifinals at the 2002 FIFA World Cup on home soil. He later coached South Korea to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics — the country’s first Olympic medal in football — but had a disappointing stint with the men’s senior team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, where South Korea were knocked out in group stage.
Hong coached briefly in China and then turned to football administration as the new executive director of the Korea Football Association (KFA) in 2017.
Hong said coaching in the K League had always been in the back of his mind.
“When I was working at the KFA, I decided I wouldn’t return to coaching during my (three-year) term,” Hong said. “I think I was able to accomplish everything I’d wanted in that role. And Ulsan presented me with a great offer. I wanted to take the opportunity to compete against coaches and players that I once coached.”
As to why Ulsan haven’t been able to overcome Jeonbuk, Hong said Jeonbuk have been building up for their dynastic run for over a decade, while Ulsan have only been trying to catch up for two years.
“Just because we’ve been runners-up for two straight years, it shouldn’t diminish the efforts we’ve put in during that process,” Hong said. “The one thing that we’ve not done as well as Jeonbuk is we haven’t been able to come together for the common goal at key junctures.”
Hong said, while he won’t demand sacrifices from everyone, he will expect a certain level of collective effort.
“I’ll set up a system where dedication and sacrifices will be rewarded,” the new coach said. “If individuality and team-first mindset can co-exist, I think we can create great results.”
Asked if he felt the burden of expectations to end Ulsan’s 15-year title drought, Hong said he’ll embrace that pressure.
“We have a very clear goal. That’s to win a championship this year,” Hong said. “And as important as winning the title right away is, I also want to lay foundation for more titles down the road. I’ll build the squad around our young core and develop our youth players so that they’ll be the cornerstones in the future.”
Hong will be coaching against players from his 2012 Olympic team and the 2014 World Cup team. And some of Hong’s former teammates or foes are now coaching in the K League.
Hong said he will put personal feelings aside whenever he finds familiar faces on the opposite end of the pitch.
“If we can all have healthy competitions, it will create interesting storylines, which will then bring more fans to our league,” Hong said. “If all of my former players do the best for their current clubs, then it’s good enough for me.”
Hong’s Ulsan coaching debut will come next month, even before the start of the K League season.
Starting on Feb. 1, Ulsan will represent Asia at the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar. Ulsan won the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League, the continent’s top club competition, in December, and will be joined in the FIFA tournament by other continental champions, including the European winners Bayern Munich.
Hong is dealing with a time crunch. Ulsan won their AFC title on Dec. 19, and their players had to quarantine for 14 days upon returning home. Hong said he gave the players another week off so they could regroup mentally and physically for the FIFA World Cup. And after the conclusion of that tournament, they’ll have to quarantine for two weeks again, which would leave them precious little time to prepare for the new K League season.
The season schedule hasn’t been released yet but the competition could start sometime in March. Hong cited examples of Japanese clubs who were able to train during quarantine after returning home from the AFC Champions League and said, “If we could get similar administrative support, it would really help our preparation for the new season.”
Hong said he had to coach more conservatively, with defense taking priority over offense, on national teams because South Korean often faced superior opponents. At the club level, he thinks he can afford to take more risks.
“I want us to play an exciting, entertaining and dynamic brand of football,” Hong said. “The ultimate objective of any strategy is to win. And I can try all sorts of different ideas to accomplish that.”

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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