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News: Jeonbuk Manager Choi Kang-hee Agrees Move to China

News: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors manager Choi Kang-hee set for move to China's Tianjin Quanjian
It has been confirmed today that highly decorated Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors manager Choi Kang-hee has agreed on a deal to take over at Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian from the start of next season. The move comes on the back of Jeonbuk’s sixth K League title win and marks the end of a glorious era for the North Jeolla club, in which he led them to a total of nine titles during his tenure.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors long-serving manager Choi Kang-hee has agreed to leave his role at the club come the end of the season, with the view to move to the Chinese Super League outfit Tianjin Quanjian. His move follows his assistant Park Choong-gyun who had taken over at Tianjin as caretaker earlier this month.

Choi Kang-hee leaves Jeonbuk after nearly thirteen seasons with the club, in addition to becoming one of the K League’s most decorated managers. The manager has overseen the club lift all six of their league titles, two AFC Champions League trophies and an FA Cup. This in addition to five K League manager of the year awards and one Asian Coach of the Year.

Choi’s first and only club managerial position began with Jeonbuk in 2005. With just two FA Cup titles to their name in their then eleven-year history, Choi quickly went about adding a third in his first season, before raising the bar significantly in his second. In 2006, he would go on to lead Jeonbuk to an unlikely AFC Champions League title, despite a poor showing on the domestic front. That year would also see him hand a then youthful goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae the number one jersey, who became the manager’s go-to choice between the sticks for Choi’s tenure up until the ‘keeper’s transfer ten year’s later.

After continental success, the manager set about making a name for the club in Korea. He took them from 11th in 2006, to 8th in 2007 and then matched their record position of 4th in 2008. Finally, in 2009, Choi Kang-hee would lead his Jeonbuk side to their first league title, defeating Seongnam in the two-legged play-off final. 2009 would also see him sign the talents of Lee Dong-gook, a striker who was looking to rebuild his career after underwhelming stints in Europe and Seongnam. Lee would score 21 goals that season, finishing as the golden boot. The striker has stayed at Jeonbuk since, still trusted by the manager, scoring a minimum of ten league goals each season.

While 2010 brought no silverware, his side did finish 3rd and made the quarterfinals of both FA Cup and Champions League. By 2011, Jeonbuk had become an established title-contender in Korean football, winning the league and finishing runner-up in the Champions League, losing to Al Sadd on penalties.

With concerns regarding the national team’s qualification for the FIFA World Cup after the sacking of Cho Kwang-rae, Choi had been repeatedly approached by the Korean Football Association to helm the South Korea side. Choi accepted the position on a temporary basis at the end of 2011, agreeing to only help them qualify for the World Cup.

While he did ultimately meet the objective set, Choi Kang-hee’s national team tenure was heavily criticised by Korean supporters for his brand of negative football. The team itself barely qualified, relying on results elsewhere to see them through automatically.

With his contract agreed to end of the qualification stages, Choi Kang-hee returned to an underperforming Jeonbuk side midway through the 2013 season. The team eventually finished 3rd and scraped qualification to the Champions League once more, before reclaiming the title in 2014. 2014 also saw him hand promising youngster Lee Jae-sung a starting role in his first professional season, with the player going on to prove vital for the following five years until his departure to Europe in the summer.

Choi’s side would then hold the title the following season, the first time they would claim back-to-back championships. With heavy investment into a side that had fallen in the AFC quarterfinals, the manager would go about strengthening his team for continental glory the following year.

While 2016 did see the manager deliver on reclaiming Jeonbuk’s continental crown after ten years since their previous one, the year was shrouded in scandal after it was found a Jeonbuk scout had made five illicit payments of one million South Korean won (approximately US$1,000) between two referees in a bid to influence matches. The club was fined and docked nine points resulting in a late-season collapse of their title bid and losing to rivals FC Seoul on the last day of the season in Jeonju.

Choi Kang-hee would later admit that he had planned to end his tenure at the close of 2016, but stayed so as not to be mislabelled as a fugitive or a traitor. It also meant he could play a part in correcting the team’s position within Korea.

While the AFC Champions League crown did offset the supporters’ disappointment, the North Jeolla club were then eventually denied entry to enter the 2017 tournament. With just domestic competition to focus on, Choi’s Jeonbuk claimed the league title with relative ease. The year also saw the manager place his trust in 19-year-old centre-back, Kim Min-jae. The youngster would play every minute of the season he was fit and available, and eventually be called up to the Korean National Team later that year.

This season saw more heavy investment as, with the club once again entered in the Champions League, Choi Kang-hee looked to make sure his side were the best in Asia once more. However, wiith a squad boasting a wealth of international talent at both senior and u23 level, in addition to a string of lengthy injuries throughout the spring, Jeonbuk’s roster was often more strained than first envisaged. In the end, competing on three fronts proved too much as they limped out the FA Cup before being knocked out of the AFC Champions League quarterfinals to rivals Suwon Bluewings.

With a squad built for continental success however, not to mention a lack of competition in the league from sides who seemed to be undergoing some transitions of their own, Jeonbuk would win the title at an unprecedented canter, wrapping up the title nineteen points clear with six games to spare. Saturday afternoon saw Jeonbuk officially crowded in a trophy ceremony, with the manager receiving multiple overtures from fans imploring him to stay. Success at the club has rarely been known without Choi at the helm and his departure will undoubtedly leave a degree of uncertainty over the club’s immediate future.

In a recent in-depth interview with Naver Sports, Choi spoke about the offers he received and the hesitation he had in accepting them. Ultimately, he admitted that he was lacking the bite that he used to as his those who used to be his closest competitors had fallen away. He did not want to leave the club but had become somewhat disillusioned with the league itself due to how uncompetitive it has become. Interestingly, he pointed to the annual publishing of player salaries as one of the reasons for this, a rule introduced in 2013, saying that clubs have invested less since it's introduction even though it has helped with transparency.

He also dropped a hint of his potential successor, saying that he had wished to hand the club over to his assistant Kim Sang-shik in a strong position to push on from. Kim, who lacks managerial experience of his own, has been at the club since 2009 where he played under Choi as a centre-back until 2013. He has been in Choi’s coaching staff since 2014 and would be well-placed to know his predecessor’s methods.

Whoever eventually replaces Choi Kang-hee will have high expectations to meet, however. While some are quick to dismiss his abilities, pointing to his unsuccessful stint as Korea manager in addition to his board’s willingness to actually pour money into the club and subsequently the league, but it does somewhat overlook a man who was under constant pressure to deliver results season upon season, and did so with a ruthlessness that few managers in this division have been able to match with such consistency. If he were not trusted to obtain the results, it seems unlikely the club would have been willing to trust him with such financial backing.

While I even admit to, at times, veering towards questioning his decisions, there has also been plenty of evidence to the contrary to show that Choi always knew what he was doing at the helm and was not afraid to sacrifice style in favour of pragmatism or be cutthroat in his selection choices if it meant claiming the victory he wanted. His teams transitioned over time, yet are still unfairly characterised as long ball sides despite the most recent iterations demonstrating an attacking intent that was feared throughout Asia. Not that he would care though, having claimed the silverware to prove the effectiveness of his methods.

Ultimately though, it is the backing he has from the fans that speak the most about him. His support from the Jeonbuk fanbase appears unwavering, with many of the younger generations not really knowing a time when he was not involved with the club in some capacity.

While his absence may now offer hope to supporters of other clubs in the short term, ultimately the K League is losing one of it’s most successful managers to a rival division and could prove weaker in Asia because of it. It will certainly be interesting to see what form both Jeonbuk and the league take next season without his presence.

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