- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

SEVILLE, Spain | South Korea made Asian soccer relevant when it reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup. Attacking midfielder Park Ji Sung proved Koreans could crack the starting lineups of the world’s biggest clubs when he joined Manchester United in 2005.

Now Korean powerhouse Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma is out to prove Korean clubs can compete against some of the world’s best at the Peace Cup, Europe’s most lucrative preseason soccer event.

Considered one of the weaker clubs in the 12-team field, the Korean team’s goal is to earn its first win in the biennial event since 2003. That will be a tall order. The club was drawn into arguably the event’s toughest group with host club Sevilla FC and Italian giants Juventus.

Seongnam plays Sevilla FC on Sunday in its first game in Group A play, then takes on Juventus on Tuesday.

Sevilla FC opened Group A play with a 2-1 loss to Juventus on Friday. The Italians need a win or a tie against Seongnam on Tuesday to advance to Friday’s semifinal against the winner of Group B. That group starts Sunday when star-studded Real Madrid, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, hosts Saudi Arabian team Al-Ittihad.

This is new territory for South Korea’s most dominant team, which has been the host club for the past three Peace Cups since the inaugural event six years ago.

The Korean outfit has won a record seven K-League titles, plus the Asian crown. Seongnam is halfway through its domestic season and struggling in ninth place in the 15-team table. However, being in midseason form might give the side a slight advantage on Sevilla FC, which is in the preseason.

Seongnam was created in 1989 by Unification church leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who started the Peace Cup franchise and is the founder of The Washington Times. The club has faced hostility from certain Christian groups in Seongnam, who have thwarted plans for the team to build a new stadium.

It is not unusual for religious groups to run soccer teams in Korea. One of the K-League’s founding teams was the Christian club Hallelujah FC.

Seongnam is famous for suffering one of the biggest upsets in club soccer. After a 3-1 win at Al-Ittihad in the 2004 Asian Football Cup final, the Koreans fell 5-0 before its home fans and lost the title 6-3 on aggregate.

The team’s star is former Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder Lee Ho, who played in all three of South Korea’s games at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Australian defender Sao Ognenovski is also a key player.

Notes - On Saturday, defending champion Lyon and Besiktas played to a 1-1 tie in Group D, and Malaga defeated Aston Villa 1-0 in Group C.

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