Professional soccer’s Ulsan Hyundai has laid the groundwork for an emerging dynasty. After returning to the top of the K League for the first time in 17 years last year, Ulsan won back-to-back titles this year for the first time since its founding in 1983.
In the 40 years since the inception of the K League in 1983, only four teams have won back-to-back titles. Seongnam FC (formerly known as Ilhwa Cheonmah) won back-to-back titles twice, from 1993-1995 and 2001-2003. Suwon Samsung won back-to-back titles in 1998-1999, and Jeonbuk Hyundai won five in a row from 2017-2021 after losing two in a row in 2014-2015. Now that Ulsan has put the brakes on Jeonbuk’s six-game winning streak, the longest in the history of the K League, there are high hopes for the team as they begin to build a new record of their own.
At the center of it all is head coach Hong Myung-bo. After winning a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, South Korea’s highest-ever men’s soccer medal, Hong took over the reins of Ulsan in 2021 and has worked diligently with a long-term vision, and his leadership has been rewarded with another title this year. In August, Hong signed a new three-year contract with Ulsan, laying the groundwork for a new dynasty.
When we met at the 2023 Hana OneQ K League Grand Prize Ceremony on April 4, Hong emphasized that he is “preparing for a third consecutive title” after receiving the coach’s award. “It was not an easy year, but we were able to overcome the difficult turning point in the middle with the players and achieve the result of winning the title for the second consecutive year,” he said. “I think other teams will try to strongly block our championship challenge, and whether we can overcome it or not will make the difference.”
Ahead of the awards ceremony, we caught up with Hong at the Grand Hyatt Incheon on March 25 to find out more about the story behind the back-to-back losses. He was waiting near Incheon International Airport for his team’s trip to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League in Thailand.
-Many expect Wolsan to start a new dynasty in the K League One. But three consecutive titles is a feat that only two teams have accomplished in 40 years.
“When you prepare for a new season, you must set goals. It can be my goal, or it can be the team’s goal. Maybe your goal is the team’s goal. But in order to achieve those goals, the players have to play a central role. For me, it’s about whether the players can get close to my goals and the team’s goals. As much as we have a strong desire to win the title and win three in a row, someone will have a desire to stop that. There are going to be other teams that are going to try to stop us from winning the title, and it’s going to come down to whether we can overcome that or not.”
Despite the dominant win, the team has had its share of bad news internally, most notably a social media racism controversy in June, in which some Ulsan players mocked Lee Myung-jae for his dark skin color and compared him to Sasalak, a former Thai national team defender who played for Jeonbuk in 2021. Racist remarks are dealt with very strictly in the soccer world. Hong immediately apologized).
“It shook us a lot. Before that incident, the whole team was doing very well. We had won the championship last year and had learned how to deal with difficulties. In the end, we won the championship, but it was a difficult time for the players, the fans and all of us. But we thought about it a lot and tried to find a solution. It was an important time and it will be a positive for us in the future.”
-Ulsan Since his arrival at Ulsan, the team’s YouTube channel has been a source of much interest, offering a glimpse into training and the locker room, which has always been shrouded in secrecy. The video of him kicking and shouting, “Is this the team?” has become iconic for Hong and Ulsan.
“I didn’t know the fans would be that interested, and if I had been camera conscious, it wouldn’t have been possible. I think it’s important to be relaxed and honest without thinking that you’re being filmed. Fans are curious about what goes on behind the scenes, so you have to show them without embellishment. I decided to show our lives, but I didn’t know what the players would think. I think they were nervous at first, but they felt comfortable and expressed their thoughts and words well. In fact, opening the locker room to the public can reveal tactics, but we’ve always been open about that. We even showed it in a KBS documentary called ‘Space and Pressure’ at the (London) Olympics. I think it’s a good memory for the players.”
-Hong Kong A coach is inevitably a difficult subject for players. But at the London Olympics, Hong’s students still followed him. Even the overseas athletes with strong personalities in the 2010s were like “tame sheep” in front of Hong. But he doesn’t seem to have a bossy style.
“I don’t think leadership can be defined by one word. After I arrived at Ulsan, I thought I had to show the right kind of leadership for Ulsan. Players are important in leading Ulsan, but I thought the coaching staff, administrative staff, and mandatory staff should be treated equally. When we’re working towards the same goal, I’m the coach, the players are the players, and the staff are the staff. I think we’re all on an equal footing, not a hierarchy, and I want to keep it that way, so when I coach them, I try to keep the right distance, not too far away, but not too close either.”
-He is known to place a strong emphasis on character and manners with his players. During the winter training camp leading up to this season, players were rude to local staff in a restaurant and he reprimanded them for it.
“Teaching the players soccer is basic. We teach character and manners because it’s the easiest thing in the world to teach and learn. You can have a lot of talented players on your team, but if you don’t have character, attitude, and manners, you’re going to fall apart at some point. I believe that if you have good character and good manners, you can win in any crisis, so I always emphasize character and manners with my players. It’s true that if you have talented players, the chances of winning are high. But when I was at Ulsan, I analyzed why we hadn’t won a championship in 17 years, and the conclusion I came to was a lack of character and manners. They were negative in crunch time, when they needed to work together. As a result, I think we emphasized this and won back-to-back titles.”
-“I think the saying ‘complacency kills’ also applies to soccer. Like Ulsan did this year, I think we need to make changes in order to win three in a row next year. What are you preparing for?
“I think we’ve done a good job in the last three years since I took over. The way we possess the ball, drive the opponent and score goals has worked well for three years, and we’ve given the fans both fun and results. But we need to step it up a notch to be strong. There are many ways to do it, but we want to play fast soccer. We want to control the pace of the game the way we want it to be: the way the ball is passed, the transitions between offense and defense, the connection of spaces. We are constantly studying to play the kind of football we want to play. I spend a lot of time watching international soccer, and I’m constantly studying teams that are similar to our tactics or have the same direction as us and passing it on to the analytics team. There’s a lot more information now than there used to be, and the players see it before I do. I have to analyze more information and build up my wisdom, especially if I want to teach a group of players as good as ours. Studying is the only answer.토토사이트
That’s what Myung-bo Hong, the head coach of professional soccer’s K League 1 side Ulsan Hyundai, had to say about the club’s chances of winning the elite Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League. “It’s been three years since Ulsan won the Champions League in 2020. But the most important thing for Ulsan right now is the K League,” he said. “We’ve been runners-up in the K League 10 times. If winning two consecutive K League titles is the ideal result for Ulsan, we need to add more.”
Hong believes that Ulsan is not yet good enough to target the Champions League elite: “We can aim to win the Champions League elite as we have reached the top of the K League. However, we need to make a lot of preparations,” he said. “We need to become a team that is fit for the international stage. In that sense, our team is lacking. I’m not saying we need to bring in expensive players or famous players, but we need to change the players we have now. It’s not just a matter of investing money and bringing them up at once, but we, including the players, have to develop ourselves and become international level in terms of performance and awareness.”
Ulsan reached the top of the Champions League in 2012 and 2020. But a lot has changed since then. The Champions League, which used to be played during the Spring Festival, was changed to the Autumn Festival from the 2023-2024 season. This is the worst situation for K League 1 teams that play on the Spring Festival. In addition, Saudi Arabian clubs, backed by the sovereign wealth fund (PIF), have acquired a large number of European stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo (Al Nasr) and Karim Benzema (Al Ittihad) and are rivaling the big European clubs.
“The most important thing is that the Champions League’s elite festival has taken away the players’ rest period. “Next year, our main players will have to compete in the Champions League Elite immediately after the Asian Cup. With no time to rest, they won’t be able to perform well in the regular league next season.” “With the huge influx of European players from Saudi Arabia, it’s not easy for East Asian clubs to win the title, but we still have to do our best. We will find ways to motivate our players,” he added.
Article courtesy of Culture Daily