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Park Chu-young Plays Hero In Opportunistic FC Seoul's Title Run

The 2016 K-League Champions are FC Seoul. Just to let that sink in, let’s rephrase it. FC Seoul are the 2016 K-League Champions. Now, no-one is under any illusions that Seoul were the best team this year; that was clearly Jeonbuk. They didn’t even win the most points this year; that was Jeonbuk too. However, through no fault of their own (let’s blame Jeonbuk), Seoul were presented with the most golden of opportunities and on Sunday afternoon at Jeonju World Cup Stadium, they gleefully accepted it. FC Seoul are the 2016 K-League Champions.

It’s not as if the warning signs weren’t there for the defending champions. Seoul had come close to putting them in real trouble in the 2nd leg of the ACL Semi-Final last month and while Jeonbuk ultimately progressed, Seoul won on the night and brought their losing streak at the hands of their rivals to an end. Choi Kang-hee played his strongest available team that evening but in the K-League, post points deduction and post-split he had been shuffling his players like a maniacal croupier in a low-rent casino. Fans are suspicious of rotation policies at the best of times and especially when they don’t come off and despite dishing out a couple of hidings heading into the final match, it was only due to Jeonbuk dropping points in winnable matches that the game had anything riding on it at all.

As it turned out, Choi didn’t gamble on Sunday, fielding his strongest eleven and it was instead left to Hwang Sun-hong to roll the dice in the most unexpected way possible and leave out top scorer Adriano. The KBS cameras loved this and delighted in alternating shots of a bib-wearing Adriano with shots of a similarly attired Lee Dong-gook on the opposite bench, both smouldering as if auditioning for the male lead in a BBC period drama.

In Adriano’s place, Hwang handed a surprise debut to 21-year-old midfielder Yoon Seung-won with Dejan Damjanovic operating as a lone striker. Patience was to be the order of the day on this occasion. As it turned out, it was a chastening introduction to the Classic for Yoon who skied one half chance, got booked for a clumsy foul and was then withdrawn before half-time. A little harsh perhaps but Yoon will get other opportunities. Sunday for Seoul was all about being ruthless. It was about out-Jeonbuk-ing Jeonbuk on their home ground.

Yoon gave way just before the break to Park Chu-young, a man for whom that laziest of clichés to describe a football player, “enigma”, could have been coined for. As an 18-year-old in 2004, Park became an overnight national hero with his goals in the AFC U-20 Championship in 2004 and followed it up by scoring twice against Japan in a meaningless tournament in the Middle-East the following January (but it was against Japan so obviously in Korea it had plenty of meaning) before joining Seoul in time for that year’s K-League season. That he was supposed to go to Pohang is something that still rankles among some at the Steelyard.

Expectations were astronomical and FC Seoul’s entire 2005 season was marketed around Park Chu-young, the new Korean Superstar. There was merchandise, there were songs (dreadful sub-Status Quo pub-rock efforts; don’t try to find them) recorded and played repeatedly at home games. Those were the days when Seoul, in just their 2nd season in their current incarnation, were getting 35,000 fans almost every weekend and the press box was as full as it would be for an international game. Despite the pressure, he had a magnificent first season, thriving off impeccable service from Portuguese midfielder Ricardo Nascimento and scoring 18 goals in all competitions. A few season later he would get his move to Europe. What happened next is well documented but once teenage exuberance gave way to mid-twenties surliness, Park never quite managed to shake the impression he gave off of football being a chore to him, a job he’d be perfectly happy to clock-off from.

In Park’s absence, FC Seoul won two K-League Championships and when he finally returned it was to be just one of the boys, not the star and this a role he finally seems settled – and dare one say happy? – in  It may be an exaggeration to say that Park Chu-young’s entire career had been building up to the moment, twelve minutes into the 2nd half in Jeonju on Sunday, when Yojiro Takahagi’s threaded ball found him onside and in sight of goal. It’s no exaggeration to say, this was his moment. Almost twelve years after a 19-year-old electrified Sangam and for a time made K-League front page news, a 31-year-old took a touch, drew back his right foot and lashed the ball across a flailing Kwon Sun-tae and into the net. In front of a delirious travelling support, Park Chu-young finally won the K-League for FC Seoul. No time for a prayer this time, the shirt came off and Park was swamped by his teammates.

Park Chu-young has had a solid season often dropping back into midfield, a position he seems to prefer these days but still weighing in with 10 goals. He’s not been the key man though and the title, however asterisked it may be, has been a team effort. Dejan Damjanovic slotted back into the K-League in fine style and has thrived with main goal-scoring duties having been lifted by the presence of Adriano. Losing Shin Jin-ho to the military early in the season was blow as he had started very strongly but close-season acquisition, Ju Se-jong from Busan, has been a revelation in midfield.

Osmar Barba put in another super season, his commanding presence fully deserving a place on the end of year honours short-list and demonstrating that once again that Seoul, like Jeonbuk, really do manage to get the best out of the foreign players they sign. In Takahagi, Osmar, Dejan and Adriano, they have a formidable core around which to build the team. The contribution of one-club man Go Yo-han and the “Ko with a K”, Ko Kwang-min, both of whom have demonstrated great consistency  also shouldn’t be overlooked while the much maligned Yun Il-lok also showed signs of returning to form towards the end of the campaign.

When Hwang Sun-hong took over in mid-summer, he changed formation and it took some time for the players to adjust but once they did – and once Kwak Tae-hui had returned to the club to shore up the defence (it wasn’t in the K-League, but his stifling of Graziano Pelle in the ACL was as fine an individual defensive performance you will see all year) – Seoul became a much harder side to beat. While Choi Yong-soo was extremely popular with most Seoul fans, he often attracted criticism for seemingly not having a plan B.

They don’t criticise Hwang for that. Under his tenure Seoul have been consistent in defence and, if not exactly free-scoring at the other end, they’ve done enough. The football hasn’t always been pretty but they have managed to grind out the wins with last week’s home win over Jeonnam, when they were excellent in the first half and dreadful in the second half, a case in point. Under Hwang, Seoul are able to close things down if necessary or equally chase the game if necessary and that is what has won them this title.

As for Jeonbuk, an indignity has been heaped upon them. The experience of watching a team celebrate what should have been your title on your home ground cannot be a nice one. At least it can put to bed the notion that they got off lightly from the bribery affair. Hopefully, they can recover from the setback and go on to win the Asian Champions League but it looks a tough ask.

The season isn’t over for FC Seoul either as they face a newly confident Suwon in the two-legged FA Cup Final. Knocking the Bluewings off their rather precarious perch and retaining the Cup would be the icing on top of what has suddenly turned into a magnificent season for Seoul. In the FA Cup’s present format, only Pohang Steelers in 2013, under the stewardship of a certain Hwang Sun-hong, have successfully completed that particular domestic League and Cup double. Now Hwang has the opportunity to land an unlikely second. For now though, it’s worth repeating once more: FC Seoul are 2016 K-League Champions.

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