As the final eight clubs prepare for the Quarter Finals of the 2015 edition of the AFC Champions League, one club that won’t be there is Suwon Bluewings.
Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol edged out the decorated South Korean side on away goals in the Round of 16 back in May.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the former kings of Asia who were looking to return to the summit for the first time since 2002, when they clinched their second Asian Club Championship after winning their maiden title the year previous.
“The consecutive wins of the Asian Club Championship is one of the proudest moments of my career,” former captain and current coach Seo Jung-won told Football Channel Asia.
Those wins came just five years after Suwon was formed, a club formed and backed by the might of Korean telecommunications giant Samsung.
Success was a whisker away in their debut season, losing the Championship playoff 3-2 on aggregate to Ulsan Hyundai. Success would come soon enough, however, winning their first K-League title in 1998 and backing it up in 1999.
“Back in 1998 and 1999, Suwon had such strong financial support,” Seo recalled. “We were full of confidence after winning the K-League consecutively.”
“We never thought about losing even a single game. We kept our winning spirit even when we allowed the first goal of the game. That’s how we could be the Champions.”
A large part of their initial success can be attributed to legendary manager Kim Ho, who coached the club from inception through until 2003 and oversaw the most successful era at the club, winning a trophy in every season from 1998 to 2002.
“Kim Ho is a very clever and passionate person,” Park Kun-ha, who played over 200 games for Suwon between 1996 and 2006, told Football Channel Asia. “I could learn a lot from him because he had a very straight goal of developing Korean football.
“I have met so many different coaches, but Kim was the most influential teacher to me.”
While they would make the semi finals of the Asian Club Championship in their inaugural campaign in 2000, eventually succumbing to Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal, ultimate success would follow just 12 months later.
Their success in 2001 almost didn’t get off the ground though, narrowly avoiding embarrassment in the second playoff round against Maldivian minnows Hurriyya.
Playing at home in the first leg the Korean giants should have coasted to victory, but had to settle for a narrow 2-1 win, making for a nervy return leg in the tiny island nation. And they survived, just, laboring to a 0-0 draw.
It was hardly the form that would have had the other four East Asian sides worried as they embarked on the quarter final group stage, which was conducted in Makassar in Indonesia over just five days.
First up was Jubilo Iwata, champions in 1999 and runners-up in 2000. Suwon were thumped 3-0.
“I was very upset about the loss,” Park, now an assistant to Uli Stielike with the Korean national team, recalled. “That game became my motivation to win the next (two) games.”
Suwon Bluewings face Jubilo Iwata in the Quarter Finals of the Asian Club Championship in 2001.
Those next two games were in stark contrast to the first; an 8-1 demolition of hosts PSM Makassar, followed by a 6-0 hammering of China’s Shandong Luneng.
Those two wins were enough for Suwon to finish second in the group behind Jubilo Iwata, who advanced with a perfect record – three wins from three games.
The semi finals, where Suwon would face Iranian side Persepolis, would take place two months later and Suwon had a distinct advantage over all other clubs – the semi finals and final were to be played in Suwon.
Such was the confidence in the team at that stage, home ground advantage was irrelevant according to Seo.
“Suwon back then had a really good squad and also a nice team chemistry as well, (so) I believed we could win the title even if the semi finals and the final were played somewhere else,” the 44-year-old, capped 87 times by his nation, said.
The home ground advantage counted for little when 22-year-old midfielder Hamed Kavianpour opened the scoring after 12 minutes to give the Iranian side the lead. Despite the setback, as Seo recalls, Suwon always felt they would get back into the game.
“We allowed the first goal but as we didn’t think we were going to lose,” he told Football Channel Asia. “We could see the opponents were exhausted in the second half and thought if we (could) snatch some chances then we might get a win.”
The chances would come, and it was Seo who drew Suwon level when he tapped home from the goal line after a corner was flicked on at the near post. Suddenly Suwon was back in the game and pushing for a winner.
As the clock ticked over into the 90th minute the match looked destined to go to extra time. Step forward Park Kun-ha.
“That was when we were losing by 1-0, I was substituted on in the second half twenty minutes before the end of the game,” the 44-year-old recalled.
“When Ko Jong-soo had the ball, I was running behind the opponent’s defenders to create a goal (scoring) chance.
“Luckily, I scored a header. I was so happy about not missing the opportunity that was given to me.”
Suwon was through to the final, where they would once again meet Jubilo Iwata in their first match at the new Suwon Would Cup Stadium, built for the FIFA World Cup the following year.
“When we met Jubilo in the final, we really welcomed (the challenge) as we had a second chance,” Seo said.
“The score line was 0-3 in the group stage but I remember that we had a better performance. We couldn’t score when we had (our) chances and allowed the goals after Jubilo’s counter attacks and set-pieces.
“That made our players so upset and (we really) wanted to wipe out the disgrace of that defeat.”
And wipe it out they did, a first half goal from Brazilian Sandro Cardoso was enough to give Suwon a 1-0 win and the title of Asian champions.
“Finally we completed the revenge,” Seo exclaimed.
The Bluewings would go on to complete the continental double when they overcame Saudi side Al-Shabab 4-3 on aggregate in the final of the Asian Super Cup, which pitted the winners of the Asian Club Championship and Asian Cup Winners Cup against each other.
Seo Jung-won during his playing days for Suwon Bluewings.
For Seo it ranks as one of the biggest highlights of his stellar career.
“Not only was the game was decided by my winning goal, but it was the final of the Asian competition,” he proudly recalled.
“The goal still remains the best and the most exciting goal in my memory.”
With both titles in the cabinet, the club set about achieving something no side had ever done – defending both titles.
“My goal was to make Suwon Bluewings a world-class football team,” Park said.
In 2002 there would be no repeat of the near miss against Hurriyya. Suwon were drawn to play Sri Lankan side Saunders SC in the second round play off and embarrassed the Sri Lankans 18-0 in the first leg, so much so the Sri Lankans didn’t bother showing up for the return leg.
Two wins and a draw, a 0-0 result against fellow Korean side Anyang LG Cheetahs (now FC Seoul), in the quarter final group stage saw them advance to the semi finals, which in 2002 were to be played at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
Three second-half goals to Seo, Alen Avdic and Lee Sun-woo saw them ease past Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi and gave them a chance to defend their title against fellow Korean side Anyang.
Like their game in the group stage, the match would finish 0-0 and was decided by the dreaded penalty shootout. Suwon prevailed 4-2.
Asked to compare the two titles, Park and Seo gave differing answers.
“Anyang LG was a rival team in Korea,” Park said. “So our victory is more valuable because we won the tournament by beating our rival team.”
For Seo the first title remains the most special.
“For me it is the first, because it was the first Asian trophy for my club,” he said.
Another penalty shootout victory, this time against Al Hilal, ensured they defended their Asian Super Cup title, creating a little history in the process. With the advent of the AFC Champions League the following year, which combined the Asian Club Championship and Asian Cup Winners Cup, they remain the only club to win back-to-back Super Cups.
Fast forward 13 years to 2015, with another two league titles to their name in 2004 and 2008, and Suwon are still looking to return to the summit of Asian football for the first time since 2002, with Seo now in the dugout rather than on the pitch.
“Those glory days were with strong financial support and star players in the squad,” he told Football Channel Asia. “But now Suwon wants to breed our own players and win trophies with them.”
“I think the current objective of the club is harder to achieve. I feel it is a more meaningful challenge than the one in the old days.”
Alongside him in the dugout are a number of players from that 2001-02 team –Lee Byung-keun, Ko Jong-soo and Shin Bum-chul – creating a distinct Suwon identity at the club.
“Our club has a pride as the best football club in South Korea and (having) our own philosophy,” Seo said.
“Sharing and understanding of this identity throughout the whole coaching staff is the best asset and advantage that Suwon has.”
While they won’t lift this year’s AFC Champions League, you sense it won’t be long before the Bluewings once again reach the summit of Asian football.