Volleyball Walk] Signposts to discover in Bahrain
Korean Air, the 2022-2023 V-League Men’s overall winners, are going on holiday just 50 days after clinching the championship.
Shortly after clinching the title on 3 April, Korean Air took a two-week break before resuming training. They then spent just over three weeks building up their fitness and refining their tactics before departing for Manama, Bahrain on 11 May. 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) made their first appearance and won in 1999, followed by Hyundai Engineering & Construction (fourth) in 2000. In 2005, Korea Expressway Corporation turned professional and finished third, and KT&G (now KGC Ginseng) finished ninth in 2010, the last time they competed.
Korean Air’s participation in the Asia Club Championship is significant. It was a courageous choice in that unlike in previous years when we ended the season with a V-League schedule, we wanted to take stock of our current status by playing against clubs from around Asia.
The cost of travelling to the tournament was covered by the Korean Volleyball Organisation (KOVO), who had earlier announced their support for both the men’s and women’s teams. While the men’s team, 2021-2022 champions 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’re disappointed.
Korean Air had to revise their plans several times after deciding to enter the tournament: they initially planned to play all of their domestic players except for foreigner Lincoln, but the loss of strength was inevitable when setter Han Seo-su, who needed rehabilitation, and middle blocker Kim Kyu-min were dropped 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 star middle blocker Cho Jae-young only played a handful of matches.
In the end, Korean Air was fielding a 1.5-man squad for the tournament, with players who had been primarily on the B court during team training, but there were still expectations. Korean Air started the tournament with their usual starting line-up of apogee spiker Lim Dong-hyuk, outside hitters Jung Jeong-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 tough, with seven matches in eight days, including a three-day group stage and a four-game series after a day’s rest. Jung Jin-hyuk took the opportunity to play a lot of matches as setter Yoo Kwang-woo needed to rest, and an injury to libero Oh Eun-ryul meant that Song Min-geun and Kang Seung-il shared the court. Son Hyun-jong was used as an opposite spiker to keep Lim Dong-hyuk fit.
Before the first match, I was very curious to see how Korean Air would fare in this tournament. The result was 4 wins, 3 losses and a final 7th place. A bit of a disappointment, to be sure.
After two straight wins in the group stage, Korean Air went into the quarter-finals as group runners-up, losing to Indonesia’s Bayangkara Fresh. They then lost to Japan’s Sunbirds to miss out on a place in the quarter-finals, 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 line-up brought a great deal of stability to the team.
Japan’s Suntory and Indonesia’s Bayangkara, whom Korean Air lost to, reached the final and finished as the tournament’s winner and runner-up, respectively. Suntory was led by the 218cm 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 line-up, Korean Air was the only team to go without any foreign players as they were missing a number of key players.
Next year’s tournament will probably see Korean Air sharpen their knives for the title, with Han and Kim Gyu-min watching from the stands, and tournament captain Kwak Seung-seok expressing 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 Korean Air’s participation in this tournament. The first is that the experience of the back-up players has given them a solid motivation ahead of their off-season training. They realised what they were lacking and how they needed to train. The other is that the competition is now on everyone’s radar for next year. We realised that the end of the season is not the end, but the beginning of the preparation for this competition. We also realised 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 keep up with the world stage through player development, especially in the men’s game. 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’.
Korean Air learnt a big lesson in Bahrain, an island nation smaller than Jeju Island. We realised 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. 안전놀이터