Ulsan’s K League 1 title latest coup for S. Korean legend Hong Myung-bo

October 17, 2022

South Korean football legend Hong Myung-bo added another feather to his cap on Sunday, as he coached Ulsan Hyundai FC to their first K League 1 title in 17 years.

Ulsan celebrated their championship Sunday after a 2-1 victory over Gangwon FC. Um Won-sang netted the equalizer in the 74th minute, and Martin Adam put the finishing touch with the go-ahead goal in the 85th at Songam Sports Town in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province.

“I think our coaching staff and players have done an unbelievable job,” said Hong, the fourth man in K League history to win a title both as player and head coach. “We gave up the first goal and put ourselves in a tough spot. But over the final 20 minutes, our players showed what they are capable of.”

Ulsan Hyundai FC head coach Hong Myung-bo smiles before the start of a K League 1 match against Gangwon FC at Songam Sports Town in Chuncheon, 85 kilometers east of Seoul, on Oct. 16, 2022. (Yonhap)
Ulsan Hyundai FC head coach Hong Myung-bo (L) celebrates his team's equalizer against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors during a 2-1 victory in the clubs' K League 1 match at Munsu Football Stadium in Ulsan, 310 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Oct. 8, 2022, in this photo provided by the Korea Professional Football League. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)
Ulsan Hyundai FC head coach Hong Myung-bo directs his players during a K League 1 match against Pohang Steelers at Pohang Steel Yard in Pohang, 380 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on Oct. 11, 2022. (Yonhap)
Top: South Korea head coach Hong Myung-bo celebrates his team's shootout victory over Britain in the men's football quarterfinals at the London Olympics at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, on Aug. 4, 2012.Bottom: South Korea captain Hong Myung-bo celebrates his decisive penalty in the team's shootout victory over Spain in the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup at Gwangju World Cup Stadium in Gwangju, 270 kilometers south of Seoul, on June 22, 2002. (Yonhap)

Ulsan Hyundai FC head coach Hong Myung-bo smiles before the start of a K League 1 match against Gangwon FC at Songam Sports Town in Chuncheon, 85 kilometers east of Seoul, on Oct. 16, 2022. (Yonhap)

Hong took Ulsan’s reins in December 2020 after the club had come up short against rivals Jeonbuk for two straight campaigns.

Hong was tasked with ending Ulsan’s long drought but had little runway leading into his first season as head coach of a K League 1 team. Considering the circumstances, Hong did an admirable job guiding Ulsan to a second place finish, though it did little to ease supporters’ pain of another close call.

Ulsan made several changes prior to this season. Gone were up-and-coming attackers Lee Dong-jun, Lee Dong-gyeong and Oh Se-hun, who all signed with foreign clubs. In came South Korean international defender Kim Young-gwon, speedster Um Won-sang, former Japanese league scoring star Leonardo, and Hungarian international Martin Adam.

Hong said losing those players over the winter wasn’t easy but he was blessed with great players who more than filled the gap.

“Getting over this hump has not been easy. It just takes so much extra effort to overcome the kind of mental blocks that we had,” Hong said. “I want Ulsan to be the K League leaders in every aspect. We don’t just want to throw money at expensive players. I want to build a contender with a strong foundation.”

Hong’s system of buildup and aggressive, high pressure finally took hold this year, as Um, Leonardo and Adam all played integral roles on offense. Known as a charismatic leader during his days as South Korean captain, Hong may have mellowed at age 53 but still controlled the clubhouse with authority.

Hong in particular hailed captain Lee Chung-yong as the most important player for Ulsan, saying the midfielder’s impact goes beyond his meager goal totals.

“After we put the captain’s armband on Lee Chung-yong, we were able to build a new culture,” Hong said. “I think he shined brightly in tough games this season. He has been able to stay healthy, too. I think he deserves to win the MVP award.”

Hong is widely regarded as one of the very best players in South Korean football history. He is tied for first with 136 caps for the country.

In 1992, the former defender, then playing for Pohang Steelers, became the first K League rookie to win the MVP award. Ten years later, Hong captained South Korea to the semifinals at the FIFA World Cup, still the country’s best performance at football’s showpiece event. Hong converted the decisive penalty in the shootout against Spain in the quarterfinals, creating one of the most indelible moments ever in South Korean sports.

In 2012, Hong coached South Korea’s under-23 national team to the bronze medal at the London Olympics. It remains the only Olympic football medal for South Korea.

Another 10 years later, Hong took Ulsan to the top of the K League 1, taking them to the promised land in two tries after a narrow miss in 2021.