K-League continues to dominate Asia

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K-League continues to dominate Asia


Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors players celebrate their 5-0 win over Shanghai SIPG in the second-leg of the Asian Champions League quarterfinals on Sept. 13 at Jeonju World Cup Stadium. Advancing to the next round, Jeonbuk will face off its K-League Classic rival FC Seoul in the all-Korean ACL semis starting next Wednesday. [KFA]

Whoever said Korea’s K-League was on the verge of giving up its prominence in Asia clearly didn’t know their onions.

Earlier in the year, some experts and fans were pessimistic about K-League’s prospect for the new season. Pro football leagues in China and the Middle East poured in an astronomical amount of investment, luring in world-class players as well as managers. In stark contrast, K-League had no money to spare and remained idle as their counterparts in China and the Middle East were bringing in names such as Alex Teixeira of Brazil.

But the league that dominated Asia for several decades wasn’t about to go down easily. As a matter of fact, K-League proved its supremacy once again at this year’s Asian Champions League (ACL). After nine month of the tournament, this year’s semifinal is set to be an all-Korean affair between two K-League clubs, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and FC Seoul.

Since 2014, the ACL kept eastern and western Asia separate in the tournament until the final, which means the semifinal is essentially the final match of each zone. Thus, two K-League outfits meeting in the semifinal indicates the league itself is the top in East Asia.

Jeonbuk and Seoul went head-to-head against Chinese clubs in the quarterfinal. Sparked by China’s ambition to become a global football power, Chinese clubs went on a spending spree over the last transfer window, expending about $284 million to recruit world-class footballers.

Chinese money spread like wildfire and K-League was no exception, as it saw some of its star players, such as Kim Kee-hee, starting defensive midfielder for the Korean national team, leaving the domestic league for the lucrative paycheck offered by Chinese clubs.

Some of K-League’s renowned managers were also scooped up by Chinese clubs. As recently as June, Choi Yong-soo, the former Seoul skipper, left K-League to oversee Jiangsu Suning FC. Choi is the fifth Korean manager to move to a Chinese club.

But as eager as they were, Chinese clubs fell short in their attempt to reach the top.

Brazilian Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, more popularly known as Hulk, and Sven-Göran Eriksson, former manager of the English national team, could not lift their team, Shanghai SIPG, over Jeonbuk and were routed 5-0. Felix Magath, the skipper of Shandong Luneng, who has managed Bayern Munich of the Bundesliga in the past, and his Brazilian attacker, Diego Tardelli, were brought to their knees by Seoul.

Looking back over the history of ACL, K-League is the most successful league in Asia.

Korean clubs claimed 10 titles from the ACL, five more than Japanese clubs who hold five total. The Pohang Steelers hold three ACL trophies, the top in Asia, while Seongnam FC and the Suwon Samsung Bluewings are closely behind with two titles each.

As for individual players, Lee Dong-gook, the Toyota Player of the Week for the ACL quarterfinal second leg, leads in all-time scoring with 32 goals.

The first-leg of the showdown will take place in Jeonju next Wednesday. The second match of the round will take place in Seoul on Oct. 19. The final of the ACL will then take place in late November. Either Jeonbuk or Seoul will go up against either Al Ain FC of the United Arab Emirates or El Jaish SC of Qatar.

BY CHOI YONG-JAE, CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]
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