A withdrawal of funds from their main sponsor, a complete re-branding of the entire club, a legendary manager-turned-bully sacked for assaulting players and relegation on the horizon. Despite all of this and against all odds, Seongnam FC will be playing in the AFC Champions League next season after an incredible dramatic penalty win against high-flyers FC Seoul on Sunday. The 200 million won prize (over US$180,000) will also be a much-welcomed addition to the side, who had to re-brand itself this year, after its main sponsor – the Unification Church – decided to stop bankrolling the club.
This has been a dreadful season for Seongnam and, in terms of cup wins, this will go down in Korean football history as one of the most unlikely. Without scoring a single goal in 240 minutes of football and amassing a paltry number of shots on target, Seongnam disposed of K-League champions Jeonbuk Motors and fourth place FC Seoul in the semi-final and final, getting more than their fair share of luck in the process. Even in the early rounds, Seoungnam stuttered through lower league opposition, overcoming Yeungnam University 2-1 in the quarter-finals.
Although Seongnam are facing the serious possibility of relegation with two matches remaining in the K-League season, they’ve shown extraordinary resilience in their KFA Cup run.
When goalkeeper Park Jun-hyuk spilled the ball in the 32nd minute and left a gaping goal open, FC Seoul’s Sergio Escudero hesitated to pounce and allowed Park to recover and athletically win back the ball. This steely mentality has developed under coach Kim Hak-bum, which was highlighted by such quick recoveries and a steadfast defence against a barrage of FC Seoul attacks. Kim joined Seongnam after the April dismissal of the successful 76-year-old manager Park Jong-hwan, who had allegedly assaulted players Kim Nam-gon and Kim Seong-jun during the half time break of a practice match against Sungkyunkwan University.
As the game ploughed on and Seoul continued to miss chances, extra time beckoned and Seongnam surprisingly began to look the likelier candidates to break the deadlock.
But with the clock ticking towards a penalty shoot-out, both sides looked to substitute their goalkeepers in the same vein as Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands did with Tim Krul during the World Cup. Bizarrely, Seongnam’s attempt to bring on Sang Wook-jeon failed after no stoppages were seen for the remainder of the match. Park stayed on the pitch and proved to be the hero, saving two of Seoul’s penalties whilst Seongnam clinically finished all four of their own.
Kim Hak-bum deserves high praise for successfully neutralising a typically free-scoring FC Seoul, but his attempts to substitute Park could be considered a gloss over the manager’s achievements.
Kim was, however, typically graceful in victory. “First of all, I am sorry to FC Seoul, but we desperately needed this trophy,” he said after the match.
“This is our first year as Seongnam FC. With this victory’s momentum, I think the team will continue to improve. I would like to give my gratitude to everyone who has been supporting us.”
Not hiding the financial significance of the win, he added, “This win was critical. Many professional clubs run by the city or provincial government are struggling with financial issues. as a team run by the city government, the best opportunity to make improvements is by winning the title.
“I guarantee that we will give a good performance at next year’s AFC Champions League as well.” They will enter the AFC Champions League next year without Uzbekistan talisman Server Djeparov, who announced in an exclusive to Football Channel Asia that he will not renew his contract at season’s end.
To avoid competing in next year’s ACL while also contesting the K-League Challenge, Korea’s second flight, Seongnam FC now find themselves needing a win against Busan I’Park on Wednesday night and Incheon United this weekend. The side have thrived when their backs are against the wall, and they will have to continue the trend if they are to survive as a K-League Classic team in what has been an unconventionally remarkable season.