x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Seongnam's divine intervention

Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma will arrive in Abu Dhabi next week for the Club World Cup with lofty ambitions.

Seongnam's Sasa Ognenovski, right, wheels away after scoring against Zob Ahan in the Asian Champions League final last month. 

Etsuo Hara / Getty Images
Seongnam's Sasa Ognenovski, right, wheels away after scoring against Zob Ahan in the Asian Champions League final last month. Etsuo Hara / Getty Images

Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma will arrive in Abu Dhabi next week for the Club World Cup with lofty ambitions. The team from South Korea, easily the most successful nation in Asian club football, want to became the first from outside Europe and South America to become world champions.

The likes of Pohang Steelers, Gamba Osaka and Urawa Reds have given good accounts of the continent in recent times. But the seven-time K-League champions have the belief that they could be about to make history.

"We're not going there to make up the numbers," said Shin Tae-yong, the coach. "We are honoured to be participating in such a prestigious competition but we aim to win, as we do every time we play."

Shin's opinions are not easily dismissed. Just 40 and in only his second season as the coach, the former midfielder, known as "Mr Seongnam" after his 12 years as a player, led the Yellows to the Asian Champions League trophy last month.

It opened with a win over highly rated Kawasaki Frontale of Japan, the second round brought a 3-0 victory over the 2008 champions Gamba Osaka. The two-time winners Suwon Bluewings were beaten at the quarter-final stage. Then it was time to face west Asian opposition. Seongnam squeezed past Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia in the semi-final on away goals after it ended 4-4 on aggregate and then defeated Zob Ahan of Iran 3-1 in the final.

From the beginning, Seongnam's fast, direct and physical play caused problems for Asia's finest. There is height, pace, aggression and no shortage of skill in this team.

The foreign stars are quality. At the back is the Australian man-mountain Sasa Ognenovski, a player who earned his first national team call-up on the strength of his achievements with Seongnam and was named Asian Player of the Year last week. In attack there is the equally tall Dzenan Radoncic, the Montenegrin marksman keen to return to the pitch after his suspension for the final in Tokyo, and in between there is Mauricio Molina, the talented former Colombian international who tormented so many defences in the tournament with seven goals and almost as many assists.

It is not all about the overseas members: the Korean majority is solid, with a blend of youth and experience. Two players from Korea's last-16 World Cup campaign, Jung Sung-ryung in goal and midfielder Kim Jung-woo, will not be overawed by the occasion in Abu Dhabi, while Cho Byung-kuk in defence and the mercurial Choi "Little Maradona" Sung-kuk in attack, are well-known Korean stars.

The team that takes the pitch at Zayed Sports City on December 11 will be stronger than the scouts of Al Wahda, who watched the K-League team win the continental crown in Japan, may think. As well as the suspended pair of Radoncic and Jeon Kwang-jin, there were four others absent that night. Two were on Asian Games duty and two, Choi and Kim, were on national duty and ending their two-year service with the K-League's military club Gwangju Sangmu.

The army may control Sangmu but Seongnam's owners are somewhat different. Instead of generals, there is the Unification Church, perhaps better-known globally as "the Moonies" after the church founder, Sun Myung Moon. Belonging to this controversial group has its benefits for the club. Money, from a lengthy list of international businesses, helps finance the team, despite small crowds at home. The religious connotations meant that the club was met by protests when it relocated to Seongnam, a satellite city of Seoul, in 1996 amid promises to the city that there would be few visible links to the church.

Those promises have been kept and trophies have kept coming even if the fans have not. The team may be more popular in Japan than they are at home; thousands of the church's many followers in the Land of the Rising Sun appeared in Tokyo to support the team in the final - though it is unlikely that this network will extend to Abu Dhabi.

This Unification Church connection makes Seongnam a more intentional experienced team than perhaps any in Asia. The Ilhwa group organises the biennial Peace Cup tournament and the club is a regular participant. In the 2009 version, which featured Real Madrid, Porto, Lyon and Aston Villa, Seongnam drew 0-0 with Sevilla before losing 3-0 to the Italian giants Juventus.

A meeting with another Italian giant, Inter Milan, could occur on December 15. If so, Seongnam will be looking to show the world what they are capable of.

sports@thenational.ae