ACL Legends: Korea Republic
Kuala Lumpur: With the 2020 K League season kicking off on May 8, it's appropriate that our series on AFC Champions League icons turns to Korea Republic and five players who have lit up Asia's premier club competition over the years.
No country has enjoyed more success in the AFC Champions League than Korea Republic, with four sides – Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (twice), Pohang Steelers, Seongnam FC and Ulsan Hyundai – having tasted Continental glory, meaning there was no shortage of candidates to make this week's quintet.
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AFC Champions League Editions: 10
It will come as no surprise that Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors veteran Lee Dong-gook gets the first mention. The frontman is the AFC Champions League's all-time leading scorer with a hugely impressive 37 goals over a 10-year period in the competition.
Now 41, it's amazing to think Lee was well past his 30th birthday when he made his AFC Champions League debut – scoring four times in the 2010 edition – before finishing as the tournament's top scorer on nine goals a year later. Jeonbuk's campaign, though, ended in heartbreak following a penalty shootout defeat against Al Sadd in the final.
Lee was among the goals every year from then up until 2016, when the striker added a further five to his tally and the AFC Champions League title to the Asian Club Championship crown he won with Pohang Steelers just under two decades earlier after the Jeonju club defeated the UAE's Al Ain to win the competition for the second time.
By the time 2018 rolled round, Lee had become the competition's all-time top scorer as four more goals took him to 36, only for fellow K League star Dejan Damjanovic to draw level just months later after also eliminating Jeonbuk in the last eight.
A goal against Beijing FC in the 2019 group stage, however, saw Lee move back ahead of the Montenegrin to 37 and, with Damjanovic not involved in the 2020 edition, the evergreen striker will have more opportunities to stretch his lead when the competition resumes.
AFC Champions League Editions: 10
Kwoun Sun-tae is the most successful player in AFC Champions League history, with the goalkeeper having lifted the trophy on three occasions in what has been a glittering club career turning out for Jeonbuk and J.League powerhouse Kashima Antlers.
The custodian's time in Jeonju is bookended by Continental titles, winning his first as a 22-year-old after defeating Syria's Al Karamah in the 2006 final in what was his break-out season. Military service meant he missed out on Jeonbuk's run to the final in 2011, but he would return to achieve even greater success in the years to come.
In 2016, Kwoun captained the side, playing every minute of every game, including producing a string of excellent saves in the second leg of the final against Al Ain, as he and Jeonbuk tasted Continental glory for a second time. After 11 years in Jeonju, the goalkeeper then took on a new challenge as he headed to the J.League in early 2017.
Further success was to follow as Kashima reached the final for the first time to give Kwoun the opportunity to become the first three-time winner. It couldn't have gone any better for the custodian, who kept back-to-back clean sheets as the Japanese side claimed a 2-0 aggregate win over IR Iran's Persepolis and the Korean got his hands on the trophy for the second time in three years.
AFC Champions League Editions: 7
Composed on the ball, an excellent reader of the game and not afraid to put a tackle in, centre-back Kim Young-gwon was a mainstay of the Guangzhou Evergrande defence between 2012 and 2018, when he enjoyed considerable success that included six Chinese Super League titles and two AFC Champions League crowns.
Having signed in mid-2012, the following year was Kim's first full campaign in the AFC Champions League and the defender immediately showed himself to be a shrewd acquisition. He was an ever-present as the Guangdong club became the first team from China to win the AFC Champions League title following an away goals victory over FC Seoul in the final.
Guangzhou suffered a shock quarter-final loss to Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014 but they returned in some style a year later. A one-game ban meant the Korean missed the first leg of the final away at the UAE's Al Ahli, but he was back in the heart of the defence for the second leg at Tianhe Stadium as Guangzhou ran out 1-0 winners to lift the title for a second time in three years.
The defender reached the knockout rounds with Guangzhou in 2017 and 2018 but was unable to advance to another final before he departed for Gamba Osaka in early 2019. It is perhaps testament to Kim's success in Guangdong that the Tianhe Stadium club opted for another up-and-coming Korean centre-back – Park Ji-soo – to fill the void vacated in their backline when he headed for pastures new after a trophy-laden spell.
AFC Champions League Editions: 8
A journeyed career has seen Kwak Tae-hwi enjoy success on both sides of the Continent, representing five teams in the AFC Champions League: Ulsan Hyundai, FC Seoul and Gyeongnam FC in his homeland and Riyadh rivals Al Shabab and Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia.
Kwak's debut campaign remains his most successful when, in 2012, he captained the Ulsan team that went on a then record-breaking nine game winning run to claim the title. With the final on home soil against Saudi Arabia's Al Ahli, the skipper headed in the opening goal in a 3-0 win at Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium as his side became the fourth from Korea Republic to lift the AFC Champions League trophy.
After leaving his homeland for Saudi Arabia, Kwak reached the 2013 quarter-finals with Al Shabab before advancing to the 2014 final in Al Hilal colours, only to suffer a heartbreaking loss to Western Sydney Wanderers after the Riyadh giants squandered chance after chance in the second leg in what remains one of the most remarkable games the competition has witnessed.
There was another semi-final appearance a year later before Kwak returned to his first club, FC Seoul, joining the capital city side midway through the campaign to help them into the semi-finals before defeat to Jeonbuk. In 2019 and in the twilight of his career, the defender was part of Gyeongnam FC's maiden campaign and was on the scoresheet against Malaysia's Johor Darum Ta'zim in what was his only appearance.
AFC Champions League Editions: 4
Another member of Ulsan's triumphant campaign, Lee Keun-ho enjoyed a 2012 to remember, winning the Continental competition, the AFC Champions League's Most Valuable Player and the AFC player of the Year. Then 27, Lee's performances – particularly in the knockout rounds – were nothing short of sensational.
An assist and a stunning volley dealt Kashiwa Reysol the killer blow in the last 16, before the forward tormented both Al Hilal in the last eight and Bunyodkor in the semi-finals as he weighed in with more assists and three goals to boot as free-scoring Ulsan netted 10 times in just four games.
🇰🇷 🎂 Happy Birthday 2012 AFC Player of the Year, Lee Keun-ho! 🎂 🇰🇷 pic.twitter.com/KSUdvbREu3— #ACL2020 (@TheAFCCL) April 11, 2020
The 3-0 win over Al Ahli in front of home support in the final was the crowning glory for Lee, whose vision, creativity and goalscoring ability had lit up the competition, with his two individual accolades worthy recognition of performances that will live long in the memory.
Lee had turned out for Gamba Osaka prior to Ulsan's title-winning campaign and Jeonbuk, albeit briefly, three years later but 2012 remains the year when the AFC Champions League witnessed the Incheon native's true talent. Now 35, the forward is back at Ulsan and will be on display when the 2020 competition resumes later in the year.
Now you've read up on our five Korea Republic legends in the AFC Champions League, tell us who is your favourite by voting below (Poll ends at 1600 (UTC 8) on May 8).
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