Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are Asian champions
Both teams were eyeing a comeback in this year’s finals. Jeonbuk was the 2006 league champion and Al Ain had won the inaugural title in 2003. Neither have won a trophy from the regional football tourney ever since, and both were desperate to end their decade-long drought.
Going into the second-leg match of the finals on Saturday, Jeonbuk had the advantage. The Korean team had topped Al Ain 2-1 when they hosted the first-leg match in Jeonju, North Jeolla, on Nov. 19. Trailing by a goal, Al Ain came out aggressive on Saturday in front of their home fans, who were all decked out in the football club’s purple and white at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.
But even as the sea of violet overwhelmed the fans dressed in green, the color of Jeonbuk, it was the visitors from Korea who won the day. The first goal came at the half-hour mark before the break, when Han Kyo-won, who came in earlier in the game to replace an injured Ricardo Lopes, volleyed the ball in a corner kick play.
Jeonbuk’s lead, as rapturous as it was for visiting fans and local Koreans, was short-lived. Al Ain quickly leveled the match four minutes later when their own Korean midfielder, Lee Myung-joo, scored the equalizer. With the series score at 3-2, Al Ain sought to tie the entire final round, but all their efforts were rejected by Jeonbuk goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae.
Without any more drama in the second half, Jeonbuk and the club’s coach, Choi Kang-hee, lifted up their first AFC Champions League trophy in 10 years. It was an especially poignant moment because the last time the team came close to winning the title was not too far in memory. In 2011, despite all odds in their favor, Jeonbuk lost the finals to Al Sadd of Qatar, right in front of their home fans in Jeonju.
“Losing to Al Sadd five years ago, I saw our fans in despair,” Choi said after the win on Saturday. “Since then, winning the AFC Champions League title has been a burden for me. We have not forgotten about it since then.”
“It’s been a tough season for us, but regardless, everyone did their best. And now, we would like to dedicate this trophy to our fans.”
Jeonbuk has had a rocky year on the domestic stage. Even though they led the top-tier K-League Classic by a wide margin, their run came to a halt when they were docked nine points after one of their scouts was convicted of bribery. This gave their archrival FC Seoul a shot at the Classic trophy. Seoul ultimately took down Jeonbuk in the season’s final match and took the title.
Saturday’s game against Al Ain turned out to be more physical than expected. Manager Choi praised his players for keeping their composure. “We knew they [Al Ain] were going to put a lot of pressure on the ball, and the game got really intense and physical. Despite this, the players kept it cool and did their job.”
Lee Dong-gook, the team’s veteran and all-time leading scorer of the AFC Champions League, said he could finally rest easy after earning the title.
“Winning the 2016 title blows the memories of 2011 away, they’re gone,” Lee was quoted as saying by the AFC. “This moment is one of the happiest in my life. … I have played in 56 AFC Champions League games so far, and I feel like all those games were just building to this one moment.”
After winning the regional champions league, Jeonbuk will now represent Asia in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan next month. They will be taking on other top clubs who have won their respective regional cups.
As a representative of Asia, Jeonbuk will first face Club America of Mexico on Dec. 11. If Jeonbuk defeats Club America, they will face Real Madrid of Spain, arguably the best football team in the world at the moment with power players likes Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale leading the club.
BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [email@example.com]