Seoul: We continue our series reviewing the most popular clubs in Asia, this week shifting the focus to the country that boasts more Continental club winners in the AFC Champions League era than any other: Korea Republic.
Inaugurated in 1983, the K League has been home to some of the most successful sides in Asia ever since, with no fewer than six teams having been crowned kings of the Continent in the ensuing years and some of them on more than one occasion.
Based on both their success at home and overseas, here are the five candidates for Korea Republic's most popular club. After reviewing our selection, don't forget to cast your vote at the bottom of the article.
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Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Domestically dominant in recent times, having claimed five of the last six K League championships, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have been acknowledged as the team to beat both at home and on the Continent, with two AFC Champions League titles to their name.
However, prior to the appointment of legendary coach Choi Kang-hee in 2005, the Jeonju side barely registered as anything more than cup specialists with a handful of FA Cups to their name. Even their memorable run to Asian glory in 2006 came as something of a surprise. A first league title came in 2009, though, and from then on Jeonbuk have never been outside the top three.
In 2011, Jeonbuk missed out on a second Continental title by the narrowest of margins after a penalty shootout defeat to Qatar's Al Sadd, but five years later – a decade on from their memorable victory in the final against Al Karamah – Choi's men claimed Asian title number two following a 3-2 aggregate defeat of Emirati side Al Ain.
Several stars of the Korean game have worn the famous green shirts of Jeonbuk, but it is Lee Dong-gook who is unquestionably the most well-known. Not only is the evergreen striker the leading scorer in the K League but he has also scored more than any other player in the AFC Champions League since its 2002-03 revamp.
Suwon Samsung Bluewings
If Jeonbuk are the most successful side of the 2010s, then the late 90s and early 2000s belonged to Suwon Samsung Bluewings who picked up 12 major domestic and Continental honours between 1998 and 2004, including back-to-back league championships and Asian titles.
Much of that success was under former Korea Republic coach Kim Ho, who helmed the side from 1995 until his departure in 2003 and the arrival of Korean icon Cha Bum-kun, who led them to two more league titles in 2004 and 2008. Since the departure of Cha in 2010, however, Suwon have at best been K League runners-up, in 2014 and 2015, and their success has mainly come in the FA Cup, winning the 2016 and 2019 editions.
While Suwon have continued to feature in the AFC Champions League on a regular basis, appearing in nine of the last 12 editions, it was the final two years of the tournament's predecessor, the Asian Club Championship, that the club really left their mark, winning the 2000-01 competition and then successfully defending their title in 2001-02.
Key to their success at home and abroad during that period were the likes of Russian midfielder Denis Laktionov, club legend Seo Jung-won and iconic defender Kwak Hee-ju, while in more recent times foreign forwards in the shape of Brazilian Johnathan and Adam Taggart of Australia have enjoyed prolific spells leading the Bluewings frontline.
It may have been some time since Ulsan Hyundai have been crowned champions of Korea Republic but the Tigers have picked up plenty trophies since their 2005 K League triumph, while only a surprise final-day defeat in 2019 denied them from adding a third title. Indeed, the southeastern club have now finished in second place eight times in their history and five since the turn of the millennium.
Initially based in Incheon as Hyundai Horang-i, the club relocated to Ulsan in 1990 and claimed their first K League title in 1996, while there was also League Cup success in the 90s. Ulsan's best period, however, came between 2005 and 2012 – an eight-year spell that included a second league title, two more League Cups and most notably an AFC Champions League crown after a remarkable run.
Under manager Kim Ho-gon, Ulsan went on a then record-breaking nine-match winning run that culminated in the 3-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia's Al Ahli on home turf as they were crowned kings of the Continent in stunning style, with the likes of Lee Keun-ho, Kwak Tae-hwi and Rafinha among the stars of the show.
When it comes to legends, goalkeeper Kim Byung-ji was part of the side's first title success and the K League's all-time record appearance maker played almost 200 times for Ulsan, while Yoo Sang-chul started and ended his career with the club and was part of both league-winning teams. Kim Hyeun-seok, meanwhile, represented Ulsan with esteem for the majority of his playing days.
One of only two teams to have claimed Asia's biggest club prize on three occasions, Pohang Steelers also boast five top-flight titles and four FA Cups to their name. A founding member of the inaugural K League in 1983, when they were known as Pohang Steelworks, the port city side from Korea Republic's southeast have been in the country's premier division ever since.
Pohang enjoyed early success from the mid-80s to early 90s domestically before taking Asia by storm by claiming back-to-back Asian Club Championships in 1997 and 1998. They then defeated Al Ittihad to win the 2009 AFC Champions League and become the first three-time Continental champions while simultaneously denying their opponents that particular claim to fame.
League titles since the new millennium have been more sporadic, although they were crowned kings of Korea in both 2007 and 2013 in what was a period of incredible success during which they won three FA Cups and the aforementioned AFC Champions League title.
One of Korea Republic's all-time greats, Hong Myung-bo tasted domestic and Continental glory with Pohang in the 90s, a time during which his international teammate Hwang Sun-hong was also an integral part of the side. Current boss Kim Gi-dong, meanwhile, made almost 200 appearances for the club and Pohang native Lee Dong-gook first shot to stardom with his hometown team.
Only Jeonbuk have won more K League titles since the turn of the millennium than FC Seoul, who were crowned the first Korean champions of the 2000s and then picked up the titles in 2004, 2012 and 2016. In total they have won the league six times, finished runners-up on five occasions and have two FA Cups and League Cups to their name.
The capital city club's Seoul World Cup Stadium is by some distance the largest venue in the K League while last season, as they do so often, they boasted the highest average attendance despite not challenging for the title, something they have been unable to do since last finishing on top of the pile four years ago.
Unlike the others on our list, FC Seoul have yet to taste Continental glory, although they have come mighty close. Under their former guise of Anyang Cheetahs, they finished Asian Club Championship runners-up in 2002 after losing on penalties to Suwon, while they suffered an away goals defeat to Guangzhou Evergrande in the 2013 finale. They also reached the semi-finals in 2014 and 2016.
Having been at the club his whole career, captain Go Yo-han has made more appearances than any other player as he closes in on 400 games for FC Seoul, while Park Chu-young has bookended his playing days in the Korean capital. Arguably the best foreign import the K League has ever seen, Montenegrin Dejan Damjanovic is the side's record scorer while, in four years in Seoul, Colombian Mauricio Molina became the club’s all-time top creator of goals.
Vote for your favourite club below (Poll ends at 1600 (UTC +8) on August 5).
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