Ulsan Hyundai

울산 현대 축구단 / Ulsan Hyundai Football Club

Honours

  • Best League Finish: 1st in the K League 1 (1996, 2005, 2022)
  • Best Korean FA Cup Finish: Winners (2017)
  • AFC Champions League
    • Winners (2): 2012, 2020
  • K League 1
    • Champions (3): 1996, 2005, 2022
  • Korean FA Cup
    • Winners (1): 2017
  • Korean League Cup
    • Winners (5): 1986, 1995, 1998, 2007, 2011
  • Korean Super Cup
    • Winners (1): 2006
  • A3 Champions Cup
    • Winners (1): 2006

Ulsan Hyundai / 울산 현대 축구단 is a South Korean football team that currently plays in the K League 1, the top tier in the Korean football pyramid, and is considered one of the strongest teams within Asian football having won the AFC Champions League on two occasions, most recently in 2020. They are also the new South Korean champions having just recently won their third K League championship in their history by clinching the 2022 K1 title. The club comes from the industrial powerhouse and port city of Ulsan / 울산시, situated on South Korea’s southeastern coastline. Ulsan is the Korean Republic’s eighth-largest city in terms of population with over 1,1 million inhabitants, whilst it possesses the world’s largest automobile assembly plant and shipyard, operated by the Motor Company and Heavy Industries branches of the chaebol Hyundai company respectively, as well as the world’s third-largest oil refinery, operated by SK Energy. Ulsan Hyundai currently play in the 44,102-capacity Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium / 울산문수축구경기장 (nicknamed the “Big Crown Stadium” due to the design of the stadium), which is situated in the western outskirts of the city. The stadium was one of many built within the country for the 2002 World Cup which South Korea co-hosted, with the ground being completed in 2001. During the World Cup, the Munsu hosted two group games, as well as the quarter-final match between Germany and the United States (which Germany won 1-0).

The club was founded in 1983 as Hyundai Horang-i and joined the K League the following year. Originally, the franchise club represented the city of Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, which is located in the northwest of the country, although the franchise then moved to represent Gangwon Province, in the northeast of the country, in 1987. Their best league performance during the 1980s was a runner-up finish in the 1988 season, finishing behind the POSCO Atoms (now Pohang Steelers). It wouldn’t be until 1990 that the club moved its franchise to Ulsan, where the headquarters of several branches of the owner company Hyundai is located at. The team would win their first trophy as an Ulsan-based franchise in 1995 by winning the Korean League Cup, and would gain further success the following season when they clinched their first Korean championship by defeating Suwon Samsung Bluewings 3-2 on aggregate in the 1996 championship playoffs. Another trophy was clinched in 1998 with another League Cup victory by beating Bucheon SK (now Jeju United) 2-1 on aggregate, but the late 1990s and early 2000s would become a barren time for Ulsan in terms of silverware.

Ulsan became one of the strongest teams within the K League in the early 2000s with a couple of second-place finishes before the club achieved their second Korean championship in 2005 when they defeated Incheon United 6-3 on aggregate in the championship playoff final. They would qualify for the shortlived A3 Champions Cup (where the champions of China, South Korea, and Japan faced each other) and would also clinch that trophy confirming their status as one of the strongest sides in East Asian football. It was their relentless and overwhelming attacks during this competition, and in the following year’s AFC Champions League that gave the club the nickname the “Gangsters of Asia“. The club would subsequently change its name to its current one in 2008, dropping the “Horang-i” part and becoming just Ulsan Hyundai FC.

The 2010s would be a frustrating time in the league for Ulsan as they would fail to lift the K League title, finishing as runners-up on three occasions. However, the club would achieve greater success in Asian competition when they became continental champions for the very first time by beating Saudi Arabian side Al-Ahli 3-0 in their home stadium, with Kwak Tae-hwi, Rafinha, and Kim Seung-yong getting the crucial and historic goals. During this decade, Ulsan would also win their very first (and to date, only) Korean Cup by defeating Busan IPark 2-1 on aggregate in the 2017 final. The start of the 2020s would be a tumultuous year for Ulsan with the club agonisingly losing the 2020 league title by just three points to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors despite leading the table for the majority of the season, and then losing the Korean Cup final to their title rivals 2-3 on aggregate despite being 2-1 ahead at one point. However, the Horang-i would ensure the year finished brightly by being victorious in the AFC Champions League once again, this time beating Iranian powerhouses Persepolis 2-1 in the final to become champions of Asia for the second time.

This season, after finishing as runners-up for the past three consecutive years, Ulsan finally overcame their hoodoo and misfortunes to lift their third Korean championship by winning the 2022 K League 1 title. An amazing late comeback 2-1 home victory against Jeonbuk in round 35 practically confirmed the title and ended Ulsan’s agonising 17-year wait to be crowned as Korean champions once again.

To talk about the two-time Asian champions and the newly-crowned K League 1 champions, we spoke to the excellent Dan Croydon. Dan is a Blackburn Rovers and Ulsan Hyundai supporter permanently based in Ulsan, who has previously written and spoken about the Horang-i for the English-language website and podcast, K League United, which focuses upon Korean football. To find out more about Dan, you can follow his social media channels at the links below:

Q. Who would you say is Ulsan Hyundai’s best player of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choice?

First of all, I have to be honest and say my knowledge of the club prior to me settling down in Ulsan in 2013 is pretty limited. Someone that has been watching the team since they were founded in 1983 would probably name one of the big names from the 90s and 2000s – the likes of Kim Byung-ji, Lee Chun-soo, and the late-great Yoon Sang-cheol.

Júnior Negão

During my time though? Well, an honourable mention has to go to Mislav Oršić [Croatian winger/attacking midfielder who played for Ulsan in 2017 and 2018] of course, yes that bloke who loves to upset London-based megaclubs – he really stood out as being on a different level talent-wise. However, I have to go for the man who replaced Oršić when he went back to Croatia in 2018 [to join Dinamo Zagreb], Brazilian striker Júnior Negão. We signed him from Daegu with little fanfare, but in just three seasons at Ulsan, he managed to become our second-highest-ever goalscorer with 84 goals in 125 appearances. His stats from the 2020 season are just ridiculous. Because of COVID-19, the league was shortened to 27 games instead of the usual 38, but Júnior still managed 26 league goals that season, and despite the heartbreak of missing out on both the league and cup titles, he dragged us to Champions League glory in a behind-closed-doors tournament in Qatar, scoring seven goals along the way, two of those in the final. He’s an absolute legend at Ulsan and, for my money, one of the best goalscorers to ever play in Korea.

Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ for the club in both the past and present squads?

Kim Byung-ji

I always hear stories about the exploits of our former keeper Kim Byung-ji – K League’s answer to Jorge Campos. With his flamboyant ponytail and “interesting” decision-making on the pitch, he’s one of those players who stood out wherever he played. But his cult status at Ulsan came about in 1998 when he scored a decisive goal in a playoff match against our rivals Pohang Steelers. The only problem was he left to join them two years later!

Martin Ádám

Of the current squad, the exploits of our new Hungarian striker Martin Ádám this season have already earned him a cult following [he scored the two goals in the 2-1 crucial comeback victory against Jeonbuk in early October]. If you’ve not seen him, imagine your stereotypical lumberjack, but with an even burlier beard.

Q. Of the current squad, who would you say is the best player at the Horang-i and why?

Lee Chung-yong

It’s hard to single any player out from this current crop. Compared to previous years, this team seems to share the goals around with no particular player hogging the headlines. That being said, the winger we brought in from Gwangju last year (sorry Clint), [23-year-old] Eom Won-sang, is a special player, while Martin Ádám was made to destroy K League defenders and Lee Chung-yong [legendary winger who previously played for Bolton Wanderers, Crystal Palace, and VfL Bochum] deservedly won the league’s MVP award this season – he just oozed class in the big matches towards the end of the year.

Q. Who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent at the club?

Eom Won-sang

Eom Won-sang and full-back Seol Young-woo are both still pretty young at 22 or 23, but they are known quantities by now. The player I’m most excited to see hasn’t actually played for the senior side yet, and that’s Cho Hyun-taek. He’s a 21-year-old left-back who has spent the last two years on loan at Bucheon in the K2. From what I’ve seen of him, he fits our style of play perfectly in that he can run up and down the wing for 90 mins no problem, he’s got a decent delivery, and he likes to score the odd worldie too. I’m really hoping he comes back to Munsu for 2023 and features as our regular U22 player.

Q. Who would you regard as Ulsan’s biggest or historical rivals?

That’s an easy one – Pohang Steelers, or to translate our nickname for them, “Scrap Metal”. We play in what is known here as the “East Coast Derby” and it’s a rivalry based mainly on location with Pohang being about an hour up the road from us. It’s always been closely fought – Pohang were the more successful club in the past, but nowadays it’s Ulsan that are consistently challenging for silverware while Pohang seem to be content with competing with us in the derby and not a lot else.

Q. How would you describe the current performance or state of the club? How do you think this K1 season has gone?

The 2022 K League 1 table.
[IMAGE: Wikipedia]

Pretty damn good considering we just won the league for the first time in 17 years! It’s been a while coming – three consecutive runners-up finishes – but we finally managed to put together the post-split results we needed to get over the line ahead of Jeonbuk.

Q. Looking at the club’s history, what would you say has been the best game, result, or performance in your opinion?

Ulsan are famous for being involved in late, dramatic finishes. Unfortunately, more often than not, they have been on the losing end of them. However, in the post-split match against Jeonbuk this season – what turned out to be the title-deciding match – we came back from 1-0 down to win 2-1 with goals in the 95th and 99th minute. Understandably, Ulsan have a lot of emotional baggage when it comes to last-second heartbreak, a lot of painful scars, so for the players to muster the mental strength to overcome all that history, that has to be the best performance I’ve seen in my time at Munsu Stadium. If you’ve not seen the highlights, I would highly recommend watching them – fireworks, pitch invasions, and scores of grown men crying in the stands!

Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the history of the club?

The 2020 Ulsan home shirt.
[IMAGE: Football Kit Archive]

Looking back over the early years we’ve had some shockers, so I’ll have to go with one of the recent ones. Personally, I love the shirt from 2020. The two-tone blue stripes and the detailing were fantastic. And we won the AFC Champions League in it, which helps!

Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the Horang-i?

The best thing is that we have been consistently challenging for silverware for the last few years, whilst also bringing through some exciting homegrown talent. I also think we scout our foreign talent better than most clubs meaning our imports are not only of a decent quality but they also fit into the club well and form an affection for the city.

The worst thing is that every game we play is pretty much a must-win. Jeonbuk have been so dominant over the last ten years that the pressure is constantly on us to match their results – a draw basically feels like a loss. As someone who grew up supporting Blackburn Rovers in their safe midtable Premier League days, I’m not used to the stresses of competing at the top end of the table. It’s exhausting!

Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of Ulsan Hyundai?

I hope we can continue the good work we’ve been doing over the last four or five years – keep challenging for trophies, keep bringing through talented players, and keep growing our reputation in Asia and beyond. K League is gaining attention these days, most importantly amongst young Korean fans who have too often looked to Europe for their football fix. More and more people here are realising they can see some decent quality games in their own country whilst also enjoying the matchday experience – something you don’t get watching Manchester United at 4am on a Thursday. It’s exciting to see and I hope Ulsan can continue to be at the forefront of this domestic renaissance.

A massive thank you to Dan for answering our questions on the new K League 1 champions Ulsan Hyundai. Remember you can find their social media accounts in the links towards the top of the blogpage.

If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions, or even your own answers to the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at the94thmin@gmail.com or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.

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