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AFC Champions League – MVP Memories: Lee Keun-ho

Ulsan: Ahead of the 2020 AFC Champions League (EAST) resumption, focuses on those who have lit up the competition as they recall their memorable campaigns. We conclude the mini-series by featuring Ulsan Hyundai midfielder and 2012 MVP, Lee Keun-ho.

Rewind the clock back eight years and re-watch the 2012 AFC Champions League title-winning campaign of Ulsan Hyundai and it's a certain blonde bombshell who stands out: Lee Keun-ho’s shocking platinum locks were always designed to attract attention.

It's as if the mercurial midfielder’s trickery and talent weren’t enough, the straw-coloured mop buzzing throughout the Continental competition certainly caught the eye.

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His performances, particularly in the knockout rounds, set the tournament alight and it was thanks to his pace and creativity that Ulsan became the fourth club from Korea Republic to see themselves crowned AFC Champions League winners since the tournament revamp in 2002-03.

“The AFC Champions League final is the biggest event in Asian football and I was really happy that we won it," said Lee, prior to being crowned the AFC Player of the Year for 2012.

“Our target that year was to win the K League title and the second goal was to win the AFC Champions League. We didn’t get the first target but we did get the second and we were so happy."

However, it was Lee’s move to Ulsan from Gamba Osaka alongside Kim Seung-yong that laid the foundations for what turned out to be a monumental season for Ulsan Hyundai.

“Compared to the previous year, we made some changes to the squad, some players left and some came in and after these changes we tried to organise the club as well as possible,” said Lee of the team building process that took place ahead of the 2012 campaign under coach Kim Ho-gon.

“The players got used to the AFC Champions League as we went through the competition and, gradually, things improved and we managed to get this great result in the end.”

What made Ulsan’s win all the more remarkable was that it was achieved on the backdrop of a significant amount of upheaval within the K League.

The league’s restructuring ensured Korean clubs would have to play 44 league games in the season – the most ever in K League history – while also honouring commitments in two domestic cup competitions plus any additional requirements in Continental tournaments.

It could easily have served as a distraction – or excuse – for those who fell short in the AFC Champions League, but Lee and his Ulsan colleagues pulled together to ensure the Asian title returned to Korea for the third time in four seasons.

“The secret behind our success was the teamwork and also the passion of every single player and official within the team,” said Lee.

“Other teams used the change in the format and the tough schedule as an excuse but I didn't want to take advantage of this excuse. We overcame this obstacle and the change to the format."

“Until the middle of the K League we did well but after that we slipped a bit so we focused on the AFC Champions League and we obviously did well.

"We displayed a direct way of playing at that time, but nowadays we try to use possession and build various ways to score and win. Comparing the style of play from 2012 and 2020 is another pleasure of enjoying watching Ulsan Hyundai’s play.”

Ulsan’s title-winning vintage was certainly direct, with the towering Kim Shin-wook providing the physical presence in attack while Rafinha and Lee brought pace and trickery. Behind them was the industry of Lee Ho in midfield and the defensive solidity and experience of Kwak Tae-hwi and Kang Min-soo.

That team broke up soon after that November night when Saudi Arabia's Al Ahli were convincingly dispatched 3-0, and Lee and his teammates thrust the AFC Champions League trophy into the air.

“It’s priceless since it was the first Continental glory for the club, I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life," he recalled earlier in 2020.

Fittingly, Lee would go on to be crowned the best player in Asia at a memorable ceremony in Kuala Lumpur.

“I was kind of speechless, extremely happy. In my life it was the biggest prize ever," added Lee.

"Without the support from my teammates at Ulsan Hyundai I wouldn’t have achieved the award, I also gave thanks to my coach and my parents.”

Lee would move to Qatar’s El Jaish after a stint with Sangju Sangmu during his military service before playing for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Jeju United and Gangwon FC until returning to Ulsan in 2018.

This article was adapted and updated from an interview originally published in AFC Quarterly Issue 1, January 2013.

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