SEOUL, Based on his illustrious playing career, Hong Myung-bo's place as one of the all-time greats in the annals of South Korean football is quite secure.
And having now led Ulsan Hyundai FC to their second straight title in the K League 1 on Sunday, Hong further cemented his legacy as a coach, too.
Ulsan defeated Daegu FC 2-0 on Sunday at home to repeat as the K League 1 champions with three matches remaining this season. Kim Min-hyeok and Jang Si-young scored a goal apiece in the second half at Munsu Football Stadium, as Hong become just the sixth coach in the league's 40-year history to win back-to-back titles.
Ulsan improved to 70 points atop the tables, while second-place Pohang Steelers have 60 points. Pohang can't catch Ulsan even if they win their three remaining matches and Ulsan drop their final three matches.
Hong, 54, dedicated his latest accomplishment to his players and supporters.
"Personally, I don't have special feelings. My job is to help my club and players enjoy success the best I can," Hong said. "I am obviously happy to have won the second straight title here, and I'd like to dedicate this title to our players and supporters."
Hong also said he didn't want the spotlight to be on himself.
"The players are the central figures in this. It's not me," Hong said. "It was still possible that we wouldn't be able to close out the title today. And I told the players that we really had to bear down and focus this week. They followed that to a T."
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. A decade 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, playing a central role in one of the most celebrated moments 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.
Hong's coaching career hit a snag in 2014, when South Korea suffered an early exit from the group stage at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil without recording a win.
Hong began his club coaching career in China in 2016 and then returned home to work as a senior executive for the Korea Football Association starting in late 2017.
His administration career lasted three years, as Hong grabbed Ulsan's reins in December 2020.
Ulsan had finished as the runners-up to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2019 and again in 2020. They wanted a fresh voice at the top and went to Hong, who had never previously coached in the K League.
They fell two points behind Jeonbuk for yet another runner-up finish in 2021 but finally came through in 2022 to win their first title since 2005.
Ulsan held off Jeonbuk by three points in 2022, and they were even more dominant at the start of this season.
Through the first 21 matches, Ulsan put together two separate six-match winning streaks and had a five-match winning streak, jumping out to a 17-2-2 (wins-draws-losses) start.
That gave them enough of a cushion to clinch the title with three matches to spare, despite winning just once in their seven matches prior to Sunday.
"We played well early in the year but ran into some difficulties of late. But our players never lost their focus, and we were able to capture our title on home turf," Hong said. "We knew it would be difficult to score early, because our opponents came ready to play physically. We were looking to make a hard push for goals in the second half, and our substitutes did a great job."
Asked where the 2023 title ranks on the list of his career accomplishments, Hong said: "Honestly, my career as a coach isn't that important to me, personally. I am only interested in helping people I am with grow and evolve."
Sunday's match drew nearly 19,000 fans, and Ulsan surpassed the 300,000 mark for the season. Hong said Ulsan's supporters travel well and give his team great backing even at away matches.
"I think we're becoming a truly national club," Hong said. "Our supporters have stuck with us through ups and downs."
Asked to pick any unsung hero from his squad this season, Hong said everyone has done his part.
"In particular, those who haven't been playing much have made great sacrifices for the team," Hong noted. "Their dedication has made this championship possible."
Source: Yonhap News Agency