It didn’t come as a surprise. Jeonbuk Motors led the K-league from early in the season and were the best team for most of it. Choi Kang-hee’s men should have won the Asian title too but had to make do with the domestic title to add to the 2009 crown.
The inevitable came to pass on December 4 in the second leg of the Championship play-off final against Ulsan Horangi. Jeonbuk won the away leg 2-1 and then, despite falling a goal behind at home, recovered to take the return match by the same scoreline in front of a big crowd, which took the league past the three million mark for the season.
Even stony-faced Choi Kang-hee managed a smile during the celebrations after which he told reporters that he felt now that Jeonbuk had become a big club. He is right. Until their 2006 Asian title, the Jeonju outfit had never been a serious contender but is now one of the best in Korea and the continent at large.
Striker Lee Dong-guk didn’t get on the score sheet and even missed a penalty (Ulsan conceded five in five play-off matches but only Togel Singapore two were scored) but had already done enough to be overwhelmingly voted in as the 2011 K-League MVP almost exactly 48 hours after lifting the trophy.
Jeonbuk are not a team full of internationals, Korean squads come and go with barely a name in it from the champions, but coach Choi knows all about winning in the K-League. He rarely smiles but he often wins. Well-organised, tough but with players who can really play, the champions have been formidable.
Ulsan finished sixth in the regular standings after a fairly mediocre campaign. The team saved their best for the play-offs, deservedly beating FC Seoul in the opening game and then squeezing past Suwon Bluewings and Pohang Steelers to get the shot at Jeonbuk and the title.
Pohang finished second in the league but didn’t get too much reward for a solid first season under Hwang Sun-hong. The team was never really in danger of losing second spot but, for a thrilling 3-2 win over Jeonbuk aside, rarely threatened to occupy the summit.
Big boys FC Seoul and Suwon both had disappointing starts to the season. Seoul lost coach Hwangbo Kwan and while caretaker Choi Yong-soo stepped in to steady the ship, he struggled to produce the goods in the games when it mattered. Montenegrin marksman Dejan Damjanovic had another season to remember however, scoring 22 goals, an impressive tally and six more than the next in the charts – Lee Dong-guk.
Suwon’s season took a turn for the better with the summer signing of Stevica Ristic. The muscular Macedonian scored for fun and sent the Bluewings soaring into the play-offs. He never appeared in the loss against Ulsan however as he had to serve a six-game suspension handed out by the AFC. His part in the mass brawl against Al Sadd in the semi-final of the 2011 Asian Champions League was worst than most but the punishment seemed excessive.
It was an unlucky season for Suwon. A controversial goal knocked the team out of the Asian Champions League, the same happened in the final of the FA Cup and they were eliminated from the play-offs after a penalty shootout.
The surprise package of the season were Busan I’Park. Ahn Ik-soo was in his first season as coach and after an indifferent start led the team into fifth helped by talented attackers such as Park Hee-do and Yang Dong-hyun. Park has already left for Seoul and the problem for Busan over the coming months is going to be keeping hold of their best players when the bigger boys come calling.
Seongnam Ilhwa started the season as Asian champs and ended it by winning the FA Cup to book a place in the 2012 version. Not much in between was good as the team without sold stars such as Mauricio Molina and Jung Sung-ryong struggled but coach Shin Tae-yong is hopeful of a return to form both at home and overseas for Korea’s most successful team.
Gyeongnam FC almost made the play-offs but failed at the end. Their season was disrupted by the sale of star striker Lucio to Ulsan in the summer and the sale of star midfielder Yoon Bitgaram to Seongnam as soon as the season ended, despite interest from Glasgow Rangers suggests that the future may not be so bright.
Chunnam Dragons also just missed out and the day after it all finished, coach Jung Hae-sung handed in his notice but was persuaded to stay on by the club. Also in Jeolla Province, Gwangju FC had a reasonable first season and finished in 11th with Lee Sung-ki impressing in midfield, so much so that he was named Rookie of the Year. Last season’s runners-up Jeju United ended in ninth after a disappointing season.
Then there are the strugglers. Daegu FC, Daejeon Citizen and Sangju Sangmu spent the season in the lower reaches of the standings along usual mid-table team Incheon United. . Gangwon FC failed to score for the first four matches, setting the scene for a pretty dire season.
The season was dominated however not by Jeonbuk or anyone else for that matter but match-fixing. Rumours have abounded for some time but the scale of the practice surprised everyone with around 60 players, some still playing others not, prosecuted and all banned from football from various numbers of years and sometimes life.
It was all a bit depressing but some good could come out of it if the K-league sticks to its guns and launches a more professional version of Asia’s oldest professional league. Relegation is coming in 2012 for the first time though it has yet to be confirmed just how many teams will drop through the trapdoor.