This year’s FA Cup may have fizzled out with a forgettable FA Cup Final played out over two-legs at the end of a long season when it’s too cold to play football. But it hasn’t always been like this. No, things used to be far worse! From that era of neutral grounds, 2pm weekday kick-offs and the final three rounds all crammed into one inglorious December week, one year does stand out though. Just like 2017, it was a year when a lower league team almost made it to the Asian Champions League.
2005 in Korea! Roh Moo-hyun was in the Blue House, Professor Hwang Woo-suk was still a national hero and a brand-new boy band called Super Junior were marching up the local hit parade. As for football, the National Team was doing its best to damp down any residual World Cup 2002 euphoria, sealing qualification for Germany 2006 in deeply unimpressive style. Tottenham Hotspur, Boca Juniors, PSV Eindhoven and Lyon were among seven overseas teams to visit Korea in the summer to play in the Peace Cup (bankrolled by the Moonies and therefore also involving Seongnam) but main attraction Park Ji-sung wasn’t with PSV. That’s because he had just completed a move to Manchester United and the English Premier League was about to become the primary focus for Korean football fans for the next forever. Chelsea also visited for a Samsung love-in with Suwon Bluewings but Lee Hyo-ri’s pre-game “sexy-kick” was the only highlight of a dour friendly.
Then there was the K-League. For 2005, the powers that be had come up with a monumentally idiotic league structure. There were 13 clubs so it was decided that everybody would play each other twice for a total of 24 matches. It sounds short but remember, in those days, in addition to the league, the teams had to play in the K-League Cup, that year called the “Hauzen Cup” and run in a simple league format giving each club 12 additional matches in the middle of the season. The regular league was split into two parts with the winner of the first half of the season and the winner of the second half of the season joining the two teams with the best overall records in a 4-team play-off to decide the title.
Even at the time it was obvious this was an idea best left on the floor of whichever i-cha it was dreamt up during. Ian Porterfield’s Busan I’Park, also playing in the Asian Champions League as 2004 FA Cup winners, won the first half and promptly didn’t bother themselves in the second half, picking up only three more points all season. Seongnam won the second stage and those two were joined in the play-offs by Incheon – who accrued the most points of anyone over the two stages – and Ulsan, who had the third best total after Seongnam. Busan and Seongnam were seen off in the semi-finals leaving Incheon and Ulsan to play over two legs for the Championship.
A Lee Chun-soo hat-trick helped Ulsan to a 5-1 away win in the first leg in front of what, twelve years down the line, seems a scarcely believable 35,000 people in Munhak Stadium (your scribe was in attendance that day though and can confirm – indeed, while attendances in those days were routinely inflated, it sounds about right and Incheon topped the average attendance list that season). A week later, Dzenan Radoncic netted a brace to regain some Michuhol pride, but 34,000 Ulsan-ites saw their team raise the trophy in the Munsu following a 6-3 aggregate win.
The one constant of the K-League season was that Jeonbuk were rank-rotten in both stages with only army team Gwangju Sangmu finishing with a worse record. But Choi Kang-hee’s team play a big part in this story as does another Ulsan team. For while “big” Ulsan Hyundai were winning the K-League, “little” Ulsan Hyundai came very close to pulling off a shock in the FA Cup.
The FA Cup had begun much earlier in the year but it wasn’t until the end of October that thirteen K-League teams (no Challenge back then) and ten National League sides joined 9 who had survived the qualifying process. Of those nine, eight were Universities, while rounding out the thirty-two was the works team of Incheon-based machinery tool manufacturer Bongshin Corporation. “Bongshin Club” had a Cup pedigree though, having also qualified for the last 32 in 2003 when coach Hyun Young-jin posed a question to the Donga Ilbo: “How can we beat the professional players?” He thought he knew the answer: “It is sufficient to have a good memory”. He didn’t. That year they lost 3-0 to Suwon City and in 2005 were on the wrong end of a 4-0 thrashing by Goyang KB.
Every game of the round of thirty-two was played on Wednesday October 26th but not at the home grounds of the participating teams and not in the evening. Instead, as was the custom at the time, neutral venues were used for all ties with games kicking off in the afternoon. There were two games each in Gimhae, Gyeongju, Changwon, Nonsan, and Yangsan with the remaining six being played across two venues in Paju.
Some familiar names were on the scoresheet that day playing for their University teams. Kim Dong-chan netted a late consolation for Honam University in a losing effort against Pohang while future Suwon star – both Bluewings and City – Seo Dong-hyeon would do the same from the spot for Konkuk University against Gwangju Sangmu. The two Suwon teams played out a rare Derby with Bluewings prevailing 5-3 on penalties after equalising in the last minute of normal time. It’s doubtful many were up in Paju to see it though.
As for “little” Ulsan Hyundai, their full name was Ulsan Hyundai Mipo Dolphin (sometimes Mipo Chosun). Set up in 1998 by the Hyundai Mipo Dockyard, they played in the National League for the duration of their existence and as of 2005, while they had won some minor competitions, they were yet to win that title. In the round of 32, they had the good fortune to play defending Champions Busan, a team that was in no form whatsoever – a 7-0 aggregate humping by A-Ittihad in the semi-finals of the ACL probably not improving their mood – and Mipo ran out 2-1 winners down in Gimhae with goals from Jun Sang-dae and Park Hee-wan either side of Ko Chang Hyun’s strike for Busan. Over in Nonsan meanwhile, first-half goals from Brazilian pair Neto and Botti saw Jeonbuk to a comfortable 2-0 win over Korea University. Of all the ties that day, Busan were the only K-League team to lose although both Seongnam and Incheon left it late to beat University teams while Bucheon SK were taken to extra time by Gangneung City. Chunnam (not yet Jeonnam) were awarded a walkover after Seosan Citizen failed to show up.
The next round was just a week later and it was a similar format. In Nonsan, two of the K-League’s lesser lights met, Jeonbuk seeing off FC Seoul 2-1. Meanwhile the heavyweight clash in Paju between Seongnam and Suwon saw an Itamar inspired Bluewings prevail 3-1. Two K-League teams fell to lower league opposition that day as Goyang KB knocked out Incheon United while Bucheon SK were beaten 4-2 by Incheon Korail – who in those days played their home games in the old stadium on the site of what is now Incheon United’s new ground at Dowon. Of course, on this particular day, they played in Paju. Unknown at the time, this was Bucheon SK’s final FA Cup match as relocation to Jeju was just two months away.
Only two fell that day because Ulsan Mipo’s match with Daejeon Citizen was postponed until a full three weeks later. When they finally did meet, it was on a Monday afternoon in Gimcheon (because, why not?). The match was goalless until the 75th minute when Daejeon’s Lim Young-ju put the the K-League side ahead and seemingly heading for victory. However, just two minutes later, former Bucheon SK and Chunnam man Choi Ku-ruk put through his own net to level things at one-apiece. Thirty minutes of extra-time yielded no more goals and so it went to penalties with Mipo coming out on top 3-2 in the shoot-out.
And then there were eight.
The final three rounds would all be squashed into a one-week period after the end of the K-League play-offs. Saturday December 10th was Quarter Finals day. One National League side was already guaranteed to make it to the semi-finals with Goyang KB and Incheon Korail clashing in Gimhae, the railwaymen nabbing a stoppage time winner to go through 2-1. Earlier at the same stadium, Itamar had also found the net very late on to grab Suwon Bluewings a last gasp equaliser against Jeonbuk. That made it 3-3 but the Mad Green Boys would win the eventual shoot-out and punch their ticket to Seoul.
Less than 15 miles to the west in Changwon, an Adrian Naega brace saw Chunnam defeat Daegu 2-1 but not before Mipo had done it again. This time Pohang were their top-flight prey. It was a dour struggle that went 0-0 through both normal time and extra-time but once more the National Leaguers held their nerve best in the penalty shoot-out, winning 4-3. Mipo had now knocked out three K-League teams despite only scoring two goals themselves from open play.
One Ticket, 3 Games.
The four remaining teams decamped to the capital for the conclusion of the tournament with both semi-finals set for Seoul World Cup Stadium on December 14th with kick-offs at 2pm and 4:30pm. Both ties would be K-League vs National League with Mipo to face Chunnam and Korail to try their luck against Jeonbuk.
Mipo went first. And how they went. Goals either side of halftime from Lee Jae-chun and Kim Young-ki put them into a 2-0 lead. Noh Byung-joon pulled one back for Chunnam on 62 but after weathering plenty of pressure, Jung Min-mu wrapped things up in injury time to send an ecstatic Mipo into the final.
They would play Jeonbuk, who later in the afternoon despatched Korail by the same 3-1 scoreline; Colombian forward Milton Rodriguez on target twice and Raphael Botti with the other.
The day of the final was absolutely bitterly cold. Though the years make for exaggeration, the figure -17C sticks in my mind for some reason although that may just be because it was played on December 17th, far too late in the year to play football in Korea. Oddly, I couldn’t work out where to buy a ticket – I’d been to FC Seoul games at the stadium before but their “ticket boxes” were boarded up for winter. After a circuit in the biting wind, it transpired that they were on sale down at the stadium’s main ticket booths, near the practice pitch, which I had no idea even existed at the time. On eventual procurement – 10,000 won – it became clear that the same ticket would have been good for the Wednesday semi-finals too. On entry to the stadium it didn’t surprise me to see barely another soul in sight. Out of habit I bought a beer but it was too cold to drink it
The players emerged just before 2pm, both sides wearing heavy coats and waiting until the last possible moment before stripping down. Jeonbuk wore green and white stripes with Mipo in their usual yellow. The match was screened live on KBS1.
None of the 1,125 spectators rattling around in that great hulking stadium sat down. That’s because we spent the entire game jumping up and down trying to keep the cold at bay and following the parts of the stadium that the ever-lowering sun was shining on. On the pitch, Milton Rodriguez scored from a free-kick after 13 minutes and Jeonbuk went into the break 1-0 up. At halftime, everyone went into the bathrooms and stayed there the entire break; the heaters were on. I wanted Mipo to win the game but in truth as the second half wound down, I didn’t really want them to equalise – I just wanted it to be over. Before or since, I’ve never been as cold at a football match as that day.
Mipo did have their chances but one never felt that anything other than a Jeonbuk win would be the end result. 1-0 it finished, Choi Kang-hee and Jeonbuk lifted the trophy, the Mad Green Boys behind the goal celebrated, Mipo reflected on what might have been and the rest of us got out of there and into the warmth of the subway station as quickly as possible thanking our lucky stars there wasn’t extra time.
Ulsan Mipo never again came close to winning an FA Cup but they did go on to become the dominant force in the National League, winning the title seven times between 2007 and 2016, the year in which the club was wound up. As for the FA Cup, it received a revamp for the 2006 season. Gone was the late-season rush, the neutral venues and (for the most part – looking in your direction, Jeonbuk) weekday afternoon kick-offs. With the odd exception though, still hardly anybody came to watch – but that’s another story.
No stars emerged from that 2005 Mipo team although a number did go on to play in K-League. In later years, the likes of Yoo Hyun and Kim Young-hoo would make their breakthroughs at Mipo.
Milton Rodriguez was named player of the tournament. The Colombian spent two seasons at Jeonbuk before moving to Newcastle Jets in Australia. He later had a stint at FC Dallas in the United States. He made 3 appearances for the Colombian national team.
Lee Hyo-ri’s “sexy kick” against Chelsea turned out to be the ceremonial kick-off and if truth be told, it wasn’t very sexy at all.
*The ROKFootball forum has been an invaluable source of information for all things football in Korea for almost 15 years now and the original comment threads from the time of the 2005 FA Cup are still online. It was a useful memory jog for this post.*