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Southeastern teams seek soccer glory

K-League title hasn’t come to region since 2007 when Pohang lifted the trophy

South Korea is a highly centralized country. In soccer terms, you can extend that from the capital to the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. In 2010, the three big prizes all came to the northwest. The FA Cup was won by Suwon, the K-League trophy now resides in Seoul and Seongnam became the champion of Asia.

Still, there is another power center of Korean soccer ― the southeast. There are a number of teams in the region with significant histories. Pohang Steelers is the most successful club ever in Asian soccer with three titles to its name. Busan I’Park is a four-time champion of the K-League and was the first Korean club to be crowned continental champion, Ulsan Horangi has twice been national champion while Gyeongnam FC is a growing force.

The title hasn’t come to the region since 2007 when Pohang lifted the golden trophy but unlike the stereotypical man from Gyeongsang Province, clubs in the region have not been quiet since the end of last season.

Perhaps it is Ulsan that is the happiest with how things have progressed off the field and is looking forward to seeing how the season unfolds on it. The Tigers have been collecting some well-known Korean players.

The most controversial and high-profile signing has been that of Seol Ki-hyeon. The former international has spent the vast majority of his club career in Belgium and then England. He made his K-League debut for Pohang Steelers last season though injuries and upheavals at the club meant that his contributions were limited. Still, his decision to join Ulsan last week with the new season about to kick-off has angered fans of the red and black.
Former Premier League player Seol Ki-hyeon (right) has angered many Pohang fans by joining Ulsan. (Yonhap News)
Former Premier League player Seol Ki-hyeon (right) has angered many Pohang fans by joining Ulsan. (Yonhap News)

Seol has said that it was all about his position on the field. “I wanted to play as a main striker,” said “The Sniper.”

“After Pohang signed Brazilian striker Adrian Chuva, I was playing on the left wing a lot in pre-season training and it looked as if I wasn’t going to get many opportunities to play as a striker with Pohang.”

“When I came to Pohang, I didn’t know anybody but I know quite a few players at Ulsan from the national team such as Lee Ho, Song Chung-guk and Kwak Tae-hwi. It shouldn’t be difficult to adapt to the new team.”

Seol’s fellow 2002 World Cup star Song has returned from the Middle East to Korea’s southeast. The former Feyenoord and Suwon Bluewings star has a good deal of experience in defense or midfield and won the 2008 K-League with Suwon and reached the semifinals of the 2010 Asian Champions League with Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab. Seol’s fellow 2006 World Cup star Lee Ho is back at Ulsan after spells in Russia, UAE and Japan.

There is more. Ulsan’s new central defensive pairing looks strong. Kang Min-soo and Kwak Tae-hwi have a good deal of recent experience with the national team. Kang missed out on the recent Asian Cup but went to South Africa last summer. Kwak was injured for the World Cup but was in action in Qatar. If the two players can build a partnership and understanding then Ulsan could have a very good season.

Pohang followed its Asian triumph late in 2009 with a disappointing season in 2010. That brought a new coach in the shape of Hwang Sun-hong who arrives from Busan. With no continental campaign to distract those at the Steelyard, a domestic challenge is expected. Pohang has a nucleus of players that hover on the fringe of the national team without ever becoming automatic starters. Combative captain and defender Kim Hyung-il is the leader, and then you have the skilful Kim Jae-sung and the hard-working Shin Hyung-min in the middle. If new Brazilian striker Adrian Chuva continues the form he showed for Chunnam Dragons over the past few years, Pohang could be in for a good season.

After losing their coach, Busan hired FC Seoul’s assistant Ahn Ik-soo. The former giant of Korean and Asian soccer has little in the way of stars but there will be eyes on Dutch defender Bas Van Den Brink and Australia’s Iain Fyfe, both of whom have made the journey from Down Under.

Gyeongnam has an Aussie recruit too and highly rated young defender Luke DeVere joins former Colombian youth international Mauricio Mendoza at the Changwon-based club, one that is still coming to terms with the loss of coach Cho Kwang-rae to the national team last summer. At the time, Gyeongnam was in with a chance of first but limped into the playoffs in sixth. If temperamental Brazilian striker Lucio can reproduce his early season form and Yoon Bitgaram, now a member of the national team, can do something similar there is a chance.

And then we have Daegu FC. After finishing bottom last season, anything better will be accepted this time round. The club has a decent record of finding skillful Brazilians. Thiago Quirino da Silva is the latest Samba star to arrive at the club and, with a decent record in Sweden and Japan, he could be another wise addition.

If the title is to return to the southeast, it will not be Daegu but Pohang, Ulsan or even Gyeongnam hoping to be in the mix when it all comes to a head next November.

By John Duerden, Contributing writer (
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