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Daejeon Citizen's FA Cup triumph remembered 20 years on

Daejeon Citizen's FA Cup triumph remembered 20 years on

On 25th November 2001, Daejeon Citizen lifted the Korean FA Cup after beating K League giants Pohang Steelers for the club's first and only major piece of silverware. It was an unlikely path to glory for the Purples who had actually finished bottom of the K League table that season. But, 20 years on, the scorer of the winning goal Kim Eun-jung, fire fighting defender Kim Tae-wan and Daejeon fans who went to the game hark back to that cold but glorious winter's day at Seoul World Cup Stadium.
(Image via Daejeon Hana Citizen)


The 2002 World Cup was just over six months away. One of the tournament's showpiece venues, Seoul World Cup Stadium, was brand new and had hosted just one match, a friendly between South Korea and Croatia in October 2001. A few years later it would become home to FC Seoul but the first team to win a trophy at Sangam was actually Daejeon Citizen. 

Daejeon Citizen's run to the FA Cup Final against Pohang Steelers in 2001 was as improbable as any Korean football fan is likely to see. Manager Lee Tae-ho took over the team ahead of the 2001 season, and ultimately guided the team to cup glory but in terms of the league, it was an absolute disaster. 

The Purples finished rock bottom of the ten-team K League that year, winning just five matches all season. Testament as to how much of a shock the FA Cup win was would be Daejeon's final league standings in the years that led up to it. In 1997, the Purples finished seventh out of ten, in 1998 ninth out of ten, 1999 and 2000 eighth out of ten, and then bottom in 2001.

Now 20 years on, the memories are still quite vivid for all who were involved in Daejeon's day in the sun. 

"Yeah, it’s been 20 years since we won the FA Cup, hasn't it?", says the scorer of the winning goal that afternoon, Kim Eun-jung, with the stark realisation that two whole decades have elapsed. "First of all, it was the first trophy I won as a professional and it was Daejeon’s first as a club too. I still have lots of memories of it even now. When we reached the final, it was the first since the club’s foundation, but we weren’t really that satisfied with how the season had gone. So we really wanted to make sure we won the cup and we prepared accordingly".

Kim Eun-jung joined Daejeon in 1997 when the club was first founded. He was actually wanted by Kim Ho, who at the time was in charge of Suwon Bluewings, but "Sharp", as he is still known, opted to move to Daejeon instead.

Gimcheon manager Kim Tae-wan on the touchline at Daejeon World Cup Stadium
Current Gimcheon Sangmu boss Kim Tae-wan was part of that Daejeon team too and recalls what the mood was like leading up to cup final day: "I was more calm than excited. Daejeon Citizen was a weak team back then, but we were fully immersed in it (the final) and focused on the game. Because it was a tournament game we had a strong desire to win. Teams that win trophies don't let things affect them too much; they are strong and aren't moved too much by things that are said about them good or bad. We weren't conceited but just focused on the game".

Daejeon’s run to the final began in the Round of 16 with Gangneung City. A 2-1 win was sealed with goals from Kim Eun-jung and Senegalese defender Papa Oumar Coly. In the quarters, goals from Kim Eun-jung and Jung Young-hoon helped the Purples displace Anyang LG Cheetahs, who went on to finish second in K League that season, and set up the semifinal with Jeonbuk. Kim Eun-jung was on target again as the game went to penalties following a 1-1 draw. 

The final against Pohang Steelers had a then-record attendance of 40,000 and was billed as Kim Eun-jung versus Lee Dong-gook, who at the time was turning out for the Steelers. Of the six goals Daejeon scored throughout their cup run, Kim got four of them and ended as joint-top scorer for the whole tournament. Kim says, though, that there wasn't one game in particular throughout Daejeon's run that made the players start to believe that it was possible and that they just took things "one game at a time".


The Fans

For the fans, though, the day itself was tense. "John", a foreign supporter who has preferred not to disclose his real name, was at the final 20 years ago and recalls the team's struggles in the league: "It had been a tough season for Daejeon. There was much talk of financial troubles behind the scenes, and on the field, the team had gone 16 games without a win - finishing bottom of the league. The FA Cup was after the regular season back then and a chance for redemption. A bye meant we were automatically into the Round of 16 where it took a stoppage-time winner to beat non-league Gangneung City. However, after we came away from K League runners up Anyang with a 2-1 victory in the quarters, the endearing optimism that I had witnessed all year among DCFC supporters kicked it up a notch. Jeonbuk were beaten on penalties in the semis and the stage was set for a late November final against Pohang Steelers".

But, even after a spirited cup run, overcoming Pohang Steelers was still a mammoth task: "It was still David versus Goliath though," says John. "Pohang were a powerhouse in Korean football in the 80s and 90s winning the K League three times and the Champions League twice. But their form had been on a downturn and their past couple of seasons had been particularly disappointing by their lofty standards. The final would be the opportunity to turn that around though and a roster boasting several internationals including Ha Seok-ju, Kim Byung-ji and Lee Dong-gook suggested they would be more than capable of doing so. It was then with hope rather expectation then that the Purple Crew boarded early morning buses for Seoul World Cup Stadium".

For fellow fan Kim Jun-tae, who was 15 at the time and in the third grade of middle school, the day began with a bus from Daejeon to Seoul: "Whether it was a weekend or weekday away match, we usually took just one bus but on cup final day there were five buses for 200 fans. Including the people who made their own way there, a lot of fans gathered in Seoul. Back then there wasn’t a professional football team in Seoul and this was going to be my first time going to Seoul World Cup Stadium so I was excited.

"Actually, I was trembling with excitement. We had new flags made and took those, we took confetti and all kinds of things to show our support to the players. But, I just hoped that the players were in good condition, that the weather wasn’t too cold and that the players got through the game without injury. That day was very cold though."

The Game

 Daejeon Citizen starting lineup (Courtesy: Daejeon Hana Citizen)

The final itself didn’t get off to a great start for Daejeon, though, as first-choice goalkeeper Choi Eun-sung went off injured with just 19 minutes on the clock, forcing Lee Tae-ho into a first sub of the afternoon. A heart in the mouth moment for the fans with not even a quarter of the match gone. 

Kim Jun-tae: "Almost as soon as the game got underway our main goalkeeper Choi Eun-sung collided with Pohang’s Park Tae-ha and was taken to hospital in an ambulance. It looked like a big facial injury and so I was just praying that it wasn’t serious and that he would be okay. A lot of fans around me were in tears. To replace Choi Eun-sung, sub ‘keeper Lee Seung-jun came on. Almost all the outfield players defended Pohang’s strong attack with their whole bodies.

"I can recall most of the game vividly. The weather was so cold that day but most fans took off their jackets so that their purple Daejeon shirts could be seen and we filled the end behind the goal with banners and flags. I’m not sure why it was like this but the Daejeon fans were in the north stand and there were lots of neutral fans sitting in with us. Of course, there were a lot of fans there to see Lee Dong-gook and players like that. The fans were singing even before the match started and this was a time when we could use flares. Both sets of supporters were loud and it was about who wanted it more and so you’re singing with the hope that the fans can have some sort of influence on the game, that’s how it was for us". 

Kim Eun-jung races through on goal  (Courtesy: Daejeon Hana Citizen)

John: "I remember a game played at blistering tempo and no little passion but a major early setback – goalkeeper Cho Eun Sung – so often the team’s saviour - stretchered off after 19 minutes. My heart sank but the team (and fans) seemed undeterred and took the game to the Steelers. In fact, Daejeon probably had the better of the goal-less first half with Lee Kwan-woo bossing the midfield and Gong Oh-kyun and Kim Eun-jung both looking very lively. At half time there was much satisfaction with the performance among DCFC supporters and a sense that this game and the cup was ours for the taking." 

The first half ended goal-less but Daejeon managed to find a breakthrough early into the second period which, John says, sparked pandemonium among the Daejeon supporters: "Not long after the restart, Kim Eun-jung ran on to a neat through-pass to score a one-on-one against Korean international goalkeeper Kim Byung-ji. Cue delirium in the Purple Crew section of the stadium. Ticket tape clouded the sky, permeated only by the eye-burning glow of marine flares".

Kim Jun-tae recalls the goal: "Eight minutes into the second half, Gong Oh-kyun’s excellent through-ball led to the goal. It was at the opposite end to where the Daejeon fans were sitting, which is a shame. But an already Kim Eun-jung latched onto the ball to show great intelligence to score and become the top scorer. Both sets of supporters seemed to applaud the goal, the neutral fans too. The Daejeon fans began to find their voices from this point and were really loud.

"In the second half, Pohang’s Goran Petreski hit the post and from then on I had a feeling that we were going to win. There was a lot of time left, but for some reason, I strongly believed that the players would be able to get through it somehow but this hope came to be quite late".

Kim Tae-wan, came off the bench in the second half to help steady the ship. But, despite there being so much on the line, he says that he wasn't nervous at all: "I enjoyed it and wasn't nervous. There were a lot of fans there and the spotlight was on us and I think I enjoyed that aspect of the game. I came on and played as a defensive midfielder but mentally I was relaxed. Since we were winning, I tried to look for opportunities for us to counterattack."

Daejeon plays mob Kim Eun-jung after scoring the game's opener (Courtesy: Daejeon Hana Citizen)

Of course, after the goal came so too did the inevitable reaction from the Steelers: "Pohang came back strongly but the Daejeon defence withstood the pressure", recalls John. "Late on I remember replacement goalkeeper Lee Sung-jin making a key save and the post coming to Daejeon’s rescue before after what seemed like an eternity of nervy moments came to an end with the final whistle. Our luck was in. The season had taken a 180! The purple section of the crowd was ecstatic and rightly so. Their continuous chanting and optimism had finally been rewarded. After the team had gone on a lap of honour, the supporters paused only to pick up the ticker tape and rubbish in their section, before charging down to the car park to celebrate with the players at the team bus. It was an exhausting, glorious day".


After the final whistle, Kim Eun-jung was named as tournament MVP due to his stellar displays in front of goal. Something which he puts down to confidence. "As a striker, you are in a position where you have to score goals and when chances arise you have to put them away. You need to concentrate and to win games you need confidence and the ability to score goals and I just think that I had that".

Kim Eun-jung (R) collects his MVP Award (Courtesy: Daejeon Hana Citizen)

An FA Cup win ought to have been the springboard to success for Daejeon. The club competed in the Asian Champions League for the first time in 2003 but the Purples never really reached the same heights again. Kim Eun-jung also feels pangs of regret. "After celebrating it would have been great if, as a club, we were able to make progress."

John had similar sentiments: "The FA Cup win brought about initial euphoria and then cautious optimism. It certainly felt like a new beginning with plenty to look forward to including a move to a brand new stadium after the World Cup and entry to the AFC Champions League. There was a sense that the FA Cup success and with it being a World Cup year, it could lead to a swell in crowds, which may make the club more financially viable and more attractive to sponsors. It certainly seemed the beginning of stronger foundations that could be built upon".

But for Kim Eun-jung at least, it cemented his place in Daejeon Citizen history and as a permanent fans favourite. His number 18 shirt has been retired and fans even now buy new replica shirts with his name on the back. He is a bonafide Daejeon legend and says that he appreciates the fans' affection: "It’s hard for me to use the term 'legend' but I am always thankful and grateful to the fans. This is the club that enabled me to begin and end my career as a player and so I am grateful for that. When I see that there are fans who wear my shirt even now, it feels nice and I think about the past. I just wanted to score goals and as a striker that was my role. Now I think about it 20 years later, it has become part of history. And, of course, it was Daejeon Citizen that made history, not me".

Post-match celebrations (Courtesy: Daejeon Hana Citizen)

Kim Jun-tae: "At that time the FA Cup was won by a citizen club for the first time but the glory of winning that title didn’t last long. The club gained more fans after that, countless more so after the World Cup, but the team wasn’t performing well. They went for 22 or 23 games without a win. I was at all these games and they were difficult to watch. I never imagined that Daejeon would become a successful club, just a team that would be hard to beat. Of course, after the FA Cup win, we qualified for the Asian Champions League and faced teams like Kashima Antlers, the Shanghai team and so that created a different sort of atmosphere around the club. But, I’m not even sure what the criteria are for what constitutes a successful club - a team that is there for its fans and the people of that city? There were a lot of fans who worried about the club but there were problems that couldn’t be solved and lots of fans left."

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Kim Tae-wan has tasted FA Cup glory as a player but admits that he wants to lead a team to silverware as a manager too: "Currently, it's a bit difficult because of players enlisting and discharging from military service, and the league schedule is combined with the cup. Of course, I have a desire to win the FA Cup as a manager but I have to think about what's realistic. This season we were knocked out by Daegu in the quarters because I played a lot of new players to give see how they perform".

Kim Eun-jung, meanwhile, is just biding his time before he eventually makes the transition from a coach to a manager: "Of course I want to be a manager, I am preparing for that as best I can for when an opportunity comes along at club which I can put my own mark on".

Daejeon Folklore

Daejeon Hana Citizen qualified for the Promotion/Relegation Playoff Final after finishing third in K League 2 in 2021 and displacing Jeonnam Dragons and FC Anyang. The away match with FC Anyang, in particular, will live long in the memory of the Daejeon faithful. That 2001 team will forever be remembered as heroes and have their names etched in Daejeon Citizen folklore. Now's the time for the current crop of players to do the same by winning promotion.

Kim Eun-jung has known Daejeon's current manager Lee Min-sung for over 15 years and believes that he is the man to take the Purples back to the top flight: "I have known Lee Min-sung since about 2005 when we were at FC Seoul together, so for about 16 years. He has always been like a brother to me. In terms of football, we have always been a good fit for each other so when I became a coach for the national team setup, he helped me and I learned a lot from him. 

"Of course, I was sorry that I was unable to join him at Daejeon but he's doing well and so that puts my mind at ease. There aren't many games left now but the team atmosphere is good and they can win promotion, I think. He'll always have my support and I think we will see Daejeon in K League 1 next year".

K League United would like to thank "John", Kim Jun-tae, Gimcheon Sangmu Football Club and Kim Tae-wan, Kim Eun-jung, and Daejeon Hana Citizen for their contributions to this article.

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