Korean Air, the 2022-2023 V-League Men’s Overall Champions, is about to embark on a full vacation, just 50 days after clinching the title.
After clinching the title on April 3, Korean Air took a two-week break before resuming training. The team spent the next three-plus weeks getting fit and refining their tactics before departing for Manama, Bahrain, on May 11. It was to compete in the 2023 Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC) Men’s Club Championship, the first time a professional men’s team has ever competed in the tournament.
Korea’s last appearance was in 1999 when the men’s team, Samsung Fireworks, competed for three consecutive years and won two titles. The last time the men’s team competed was in 2015, when the Armed Forces Athletic Corps made its first appearance in 14 years and finished sixth.
On the women’s side, unemployed LG Oil (now GS Caltex) won the inaugural event in 1999, followed by Hyundai Engineering & Construction (fourth place) in 2000. In 2005, Korea Expressway Corporation turned professional and finished third, and KT&G (now KGC Ginseng) finished ninth in 2010.
Korean Air’s participation in the Asia Club Championship is significant. It was a courageous choice in that unlike previous years when we ended the season with a V-League schedule, we wanted to see where we were at by playing against clubs from around Asia.
Our expenses for the tournament were covered by the Korea Volleyball Organization (KOVO), who had earlier announced their support for both the men’s and women’s teams. While the men’s team, 2021-2022 champion Korean Air, responded immediately, the women’s team considered all seven teams, from No. 1 Hyundai E&C to upstart Pepper Savings Bank, and turned them down. For a variety of reasons, we were disappointed.
Korean Air had to revise its plans several times after deciding to enter the tournament. Initially, it planned to play all of its domestic players except for foreigner Lincoln, but the loss of strength was inevitable when setter Han Seo-seo and middle blocker Kim Kyu-min, who needed rehabilitation, were removed from the roster. Libero Jung Sung-min didn’t even make the flight to Manama.
And outside hitter Kwak Seung-seok, who served as the team’s local captain, was either in the warm-up zone or a late substitute except for the final match. Powerhouse middle blocker Cho Ji-seok also saw limited action, and starting middle blocker Cho Jae-young only played in a handful of matches.
In the end, Korean Air was fielding a 1.5-man squad for this tournament, with the majority of the team’s workouts centered around the B-court players, but there were still expectations. Korean Air started the tournament with the same starting lineup of apogee spiker Lim Dong-hyuk, outside hitters Jeong Jung-yong and Lee Jun, middle blockers Kim Min-jae and Jeong Jin-wi, setter Yoo Kwang-woo, and libero Oh Eun-yeol.
However, the schedule was grueling, with seven matches in eight days, including a three-game group stage and a four-game series after a day’s rest. Jung Jin-hyuk took the opportunity to play a lot of matches to rest setter Yoo Kwang-woo, and an injury to libero Oh Eun-ryul meant that Song Min-geun and Kang Seung-il shared the court. Son Hyun-jong was also used as an outside hitter to keep Im Dong-hyuk fit.
Even before the first match, I was very curious to see how Korean Air would fare in the tournament. The result was 4 wins, 3 losses, and a 7th place finish. A bit of a disappointment, to be sure.
After two straight wins in the group stage, Korean Air lost to Bayangkara Fresh in Indonesia to finish second in the group and advance to the quarterfinals. They then lost to Sunbird Suntory in Japan to miss out on the quarterfinals, and then lost to Kuwait Sporting Club to fall into the 7th-8th place match. In their final match, they won 3-0 against Bayang Hongor of Mongolia. The introduction of Kwak Seung-seok into the starting lineup brought a lot of stability to the team 메이저놀이터.
Japan’s Suntory and Indonesia’s Bayangkara, whom Korean Air lost to, reached the finals and finished as the tournament champion and runner-up, respectively. Suntory was led by the 218-centimeter Musialski and prepared for this tournament without losing any power. Bayankara had a healthy Dowdy, who played in the V-League, and an impressive performance from outside hitter Farhan, who submitted and withdrew his application for the last Asian quarter due to national team commitments. Farhan had been playing for Steinbein but was brought into the team for the tournament, while Iranian outside hitter Manavi Rezad was another short-term addition.
While most teams in the tournament had a two-pronged approach to the tournament, either going with their full strength or bringing in outside players to bolster their lineup, Korean Air was the only team to go into the tournament without any foreign players, as they were missing a number of starters.
Han and Kim Gyu-min, who watched the game from the stands, had a lot on their minds, and tournament captain Kwak Seung-seok also expressed his desire to go full-strength. Head coach Tommy Tilikainen also mentioned that this is not a tournament to be taken lightly.
Two things are certain to come out of this tournament for Korean Air. The first is that the backup players got to experience the competition, which was a great motivation for them ahead of their off-season training. They realized what they needed to work on and how they needed to work on it. The other thing is that all the players are now aware of this competition next year and can prepare for it. We realized that the end of the season is not the end, but the beginning of the preparation for this tournament. We also realized that it is essential to extend the ITC (International Transfer Agreement) period for foreign players.
The V-League has come a long way since its inception in 2005, especially in terms of player salaries and welfare, and now the challenge is to maintain the level of play through player development, especially in the men’s division. In that sense, Korean Air’s participation in the Asian Club Championship was a great opportunity to get out of the “frog in the well” situation.
Korean Air learned a big lesson in Bahrain, an island nation smaller than Jeju Island. We realized that only by surviving on the international stage can we become a real powerhouse on the domestic stage. The milestones we found in Bahrain show us the direction and goals we need to go in the future. This is not only for Korean Air, but also for all Korean airlines.