|New Ulsan Hyundai manager Hong Myung-bo speaks during press conference online, Jan. 7. / Courtesy of Ulsan Hyundai|
By John Duerden
Hong Myung-bo is a legend of South Korean and Asian football. In fact, he is a soccer legend regardless of where you come from. Only three players in the history of the sport have appeared at more World Cups than Hong: Germany's Lothar Matthaus as well as Rafael Marquez and Antonio Carbajal of Mexico. If that wasn't enough, the defender captained the Taeguk Warriors to the semifinal of the 2002 World Cup, held on home soil.
That was enough to earn the "Eternal Libero" an exalted place in the history of Korean sport. He was brave enough to embark upon a coaching career, always a dangerous move for those with a spotless reputation.
It went well, very well, for a while, seemingly confirming his golden status. He took over the Under-20 team in 2009 and led it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup the following year. Then he took the reins of the Under-23 team and did even better. The young Taeguk Warriors went to the London Olympics and defeated host Great Britain in the last eight. In the end, the team defeated Japan to win the bronze medal and military exemptions.
That meant when Hong was put in charge of the senior team less than a year later that it seemed like a natural progression. South Korea had just qualified for the 2014 World Cup but performances had not been great. Hong may have lacked experience at that level but there were high hopes.
It did not go well and the only thing worse than the results in Brazil, with a draw against Russia and defeats against Algeria and Belgium, were the performances. There was some fierce criticism at home and a shower of "yeot" greeting the team upon their return to Incheon International Airport. Hong went away for a while before returning to join the Korean Football Association (KFA) as general secretary.
Now though he has is back for a first ever head coach position at a club and what a club it is. Hong has taken over at Ulsan Horangi, the champion of Asia. The last act of Kim Do-hoon, a former national team-mate of Hong, was to win the Champions League before vacating the hot seat.
"When I was working at the KFA, I decided I wouldn't return to coaching during my (three-year) term," Hong said. "I think I was able to accomplish everything I'd wanted in that role. And Ulsan presented me with a great offer. I wanted to take the opportunity to compete against coaches and players that I once coached."
As continental champion, Ulsan will represent Asia at the FIFA Club World Cup next month when there is a potential match-up with European titan Bayern Munich. But while Ulsan is the Asian title-holder, that does not mean there is no work to do. In the last two K-League seasons, Ulsan threw the crown away. The best team in the land on both occasions, the Tigers had the championship in its grasp in the final moments only to fall and let Jeonbuk Motors sneak in.
It is up to Hong to stop that happening for a third time. Time will tell if he does so but for now we can safely say that a legend has returned to the K-League.