Ulsan's ultimate victory
If you had told an Ulsan Horang-i fan at the end of last season, when the team finished sixth in the K-League, barely managing a goal a game with a defender as the highest scorer, that a year later the team would be the champions of the world's biggest continent after a series of swashbuckling performances, then the reaction would have been about as credulous as when local fishermen insist that the whales they bring to the city's restaurants are already floating dead in the sea.
But the statistics are there: Unbeaten in the tournament, nine consecutive wins (a tournament record), 27 goals scored in 12 games and on Saturday evening Ulsan Horang-I defeated Al Ahli 3-0 to lift the Asian Champions League trophy for the first time in their history. The final, in truth, was far from a classic and perhaps marked Ulsan's least impressive performance in the knockout stage but the vast majority of the 42,153 fans at the club's World Cup Stadium – a record for the arena – did not care.
Captain and centre-back Kwak Tae-hwi is no longer the top scorer of this team, but put them ahead after just 13 minutes, nodding home a Kim Seung-yung free-kick. The game then descended into turgidity for much of the time between that and when Rafinha headed into the net from much closer range midway through the second half and inevitably went all Gangnam Style. When Kim made it three, it was time for the Mexican Wave – after all, Monterrey are Ulsan's opponents at the Club World Cup next month just across the sea in Japan next month.
That will be the final chapter of quite a journey for Ulsan. Progress from the group stage with ease, a defeat of the Japanese champions in the second-round and then came the good stuff. Few results in Asia have been as impressive as Ulsan's win over Al Hilal in the second leg of the quarter-final. The Saudi Arabians lost 1-0 in Korea in the first leg to provide a good deal of hope for the second, only to lose 4-0 in front of their own fans. It was a stunning result, such a thing just did not happen to the two-time continental champions. And then a 5-1 aggregate win over Bunyodkor, Uzbekistan's champions ever since 2008, came in the semi-final. No wonder that the Tigers were the favourites.
How could this team, almost unknown of the continental stage, with a coach of conservative instincts swat aside more famous opposition in such a memorable way? The solid base that was in such turgid evidence in 2011 was built upon in an effective way. Much of the improvement is due to the homecoming of Lee Keun-ho at the end of last season to play behind the striker with such aplomb, energy and adventure so much so that he has been named tournament MVP. The addition of Lee's former Gamba Osaka team-mate Rafinha midway through the season brought more goals and the continuing development of Kim Shin-wook, a tall striker slowly overcoming the Peter Crouch disease of being judged solely due to his height, just four centimetres short of two metres also helped and then there was Kim Sung-yeung, more unheralded but ever busy on the flanks.
Still, there were nerves. Memories of a 2011 final were fresh. Then Jeonbuk Motors, also a Korean team, playing at home and in great form, also backed by Hyundai (though Hyundai Motors rather than Hyundai Heavy Industries) were strong favourites against West Asian visitors. Jeonbuk had ample chances to beat Qatar's Al Sadd but fell foul of a penalty shootout. Ulsan officials had mentioned the match more than once in a bid to stave off complacency. At the same time, it was a tale that warmed the hearts of the visitors from the Red Sea Port as they touched down in a Land of the Morning Calm that is drifting towards winter.
Al Ahli's progress was a more understated than their hosts, first making headlines around the continent in the first leg of their quarter-final in Iran due to a firecracker that exploded onto the pitch. A 4-1 win at home over Sepahan was the perfect reply to that and then came the big one – a semi-final against Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad, a genuine continental powerhouse.
Stepping out of that yellow and black shadow cast by their neighbours meant that whatever was to happen on Saturday, the campaign had been a worthwhile one for the two-time Saudi champions. The semi-final win was one of the most celebrated Al Ahli results in history. A goal down from the first leg, the two-time Saudi champions, won the home leg, though the two teams actually share the same stadium, 2-0.
For Al Ahli, the omens were both good and bad. This was a second final and just like 1986, they had beaten Al Ittihad in the semi-final, though the 1986 opposition was from Syria instead of their home city of Jeddah. The final was a home game against a K-League team and Al Ahli lost 1-0 to Daewoo Royals ( now known as Busan I'Park).
Despite a long and proud history and a sixth appearance in the event, and its Asian Club Championship forerunner, this was only a second visit to East Asia. The first, back in 2005 ended in defeat in Shenzhen. Again, it was an unhappy experience and a below-par performance. The Saudi Arabians started slowly, were caught by an early goal and then, a couple of moments aside, never really looked like getting back in the game.
The fans left happy, heading home past the massive shipyards and chemical plants that have made Ulsan the second wealthiest city in South Korea behind the capital Seoul. The light of such industrial sites stretch and on Saturday, they were shining a little more brightly, like jewels in the crown that Ulsan Horangi now proudly wear, one that tells people in every corner of the massive continent that there is a new champion of Asia.