Last year was one to remember for Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. The team from just south of Seoul not only won the Asian Champions League but went on to finish in third place at the FIFA Club World Cup after meeting European champion Inter Milan.
It was even better for Sasa Ognenovski, a man looking forward to his third K-League season. The Australian was the man handed the trophy in Tokyo in November. He was also named MVP for the tournament and then the awarded the prize as the 2010 Asian Player of the Year. It was a dream season. Even better, the 31-year-old made his debut for the Australian national team in November and went on to star in the Asian Cup in January when the Socceroos made the final before losing to Japan.
That is all history now. The new season has just kicked off for Seongnam and the 15 other teams in the K-League. The question is: How do you follow a season that was almost as perfect as it could be?
Seongnam’s Sasa Ognenovski (File photo)
“Well, it is impossible if only because we are not in the Asian Champions League,” Ognenovski told The Korea Herald. “However, it gives us a chance to focus on domestic issues such as the K-League and the FA Cup and doing our best to win those.”
Not being in the Asian Champions League is a blow for the club. Seongnam’s exploits last season came at a cost at home and it failed to qualify for the 2011 competition by finishing high enough in the K-League rankings. In the past, winners were given an automatic place in the tournament the following year. That is no longer the case.
“I think we should be allowed to defend the title,” said Ognenovski. “Any team that wins a major tournament should be able to defend that title. But I don’t make the rules, we just have to not worry about Asia this year and all the travelling and just deal with soccer in Korea.”
There is another consequence of not having to deal with the Asian Champions League and it is not as positive. As the competition, featuring 32 teams from all over the continent, grows in prestige and profile, players want to be in it ― especially those who have experienced it.
Mauricio Molina was one. He could have been named the Player of the Tournament in Ognenovski’s stead and nobody would have batted an eyelid. Coming from Colombia, he could not have been named Asian Player of the Year, but he was one of the best on the continent ― so much so that FC Seoul paid more than $1 million to secure his services. He will be badly missed.
I asked Ognenovski if Seoul being in the Champions League and Seongnam not was the reason for Molina’s departure.
“Maybe,” he replied. “Obviously when you are playing on that stage, the whole of Asia is watching you and much of the world watches the final and then there is of course the FIFA Club World Cup. Players want to keep playing at that level and Seoul came in for him and they are in the Champions League and we are not. So he left.
“He brought goals in all competitions that he played in. Overall, he scored 27 or 28 goals. It is hard to replace that.”
Korean national team goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryeong has left for Suwon, another team in the Asian Champions League, and he was followed by Choi Sung-kuk. Ognenovski’s central defensive partner Cho Byung-kuk has left for Japan.
So despite not having the distraction of Asia, some of the team’s biggest stars have left. Winning an eighth K-League title will not be easy.
“It is never positive to lose good players, especially ones who are in the national team but the replacement goalkeeper we have is quality. We have been in preseason now for a while and I have had chance to watch him in action and I can say he is good.”
Ha Kang-jin certainly was in the opening weekend of the K-League season as he saved a last-minute penalty kick at Pohang Steelers to secure a 1-1 draw.
Seongnam coach Shin Tae-yong, one of the most highly rated young tacticians in Asia, has promised fans two new players from Brazil that he hopes will replace the likes of Molina.
Whatever happens, the man from Down Under will not feel lonely in 2011. Three more imports have followed in his footsteps from Australia’s A-League. Iain Fyfe and Dutchman Bas Van der Brink have joined Busan I’Park while Luke Devere is now a Gyeongnam player.
“They talk to me and ask me about the lifestyle and the league,” Ognenovski said. “I usually answer in a positive fashion. I talked to Luke Devere and told him that he will improve as a player because he will be marking better players as a defender.”
By John Duerden, Contributing writer (firstname.lastname@example.org