LONDON: Fifteen years ago today Al-Ittihad defeated Al-Ain of the UAE to be crowned Asian champions for a second successive year. To be the only team to win back-to-back AFC Champions Leagues remains a unique feat that should be remembered and celebrated.
At the time, all felt that the Tigers would be continental kings for years to come. If the 2004 title win had been a surprise — more of that later — then the second triumph was dominant. In the quarterfinals there was an 8-3 two-legged win over China’s Shandong Luneng, which was followed by a 7-0 thrashing of South Korea’s Busan I’Park (I still remember the haunted post-match look of Busan manager Ian Porterfield, the former Chelsea boss who saw the Asian title as a passport to a bigger job).
Anghel Iordanescu had crafted a fine team with no clear weaknesses. I interviewed the unflappable Romanian, now a politician in his homeland, after the celebrations died down. “The players made it look easy, but they have worked hard, and when you have the talent as well then you always have a chance,” he said. “My job was just to keep it all together.”
The likes of Mohammed Kallon got the headlines, unsurprisingly so as the former Inter Milan striker was on loan from AS Monaco and finished the tournament as top scorer with six goals. There was also Joseph-Desire Job on loan from English Premier League club Middlesbrough. Throw in the classy Brazilian midfielder Tcheco and you had the best foreign contingent in Asia.
“I knew I was joining a big club and Asian champions, but I did not know how good the team was,” Kallon told me. “It has been a real adventure and I have enjoyed every minute. We have great spirit and confidence.”
The Saudi Arabian stars played prominent roles. The incomparable Saud Kariri, who appeared more than 130 times for the Green Falcons, was there as were Marzouk-Al Otaibi, Hamzah Idris and defenders Rehda Tukar and Hamad Al-Montashari, who went on to be named Asian Player of the Year less than a month later.
And then there was Mohammed Noor. The all-action star was one of a top-class quartet of Asian midfielders along with Park of South Korea, Japan’s Shunsuke Nakamura and Javad Nekounam of Iran. Then 27 and at his peak, the "Asian Patrick Vieira" provided the energy, penetration and plenty of goals.
Noor had been the star of the 2004 triumph, one that never looked anything like as inevitable as the second. The final against South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma has passed into Asian legend. Al-Ittihad hosted the first leg and lost 3-1.
Everyone felt that the second leg was done and dusted. The morning of the game in Korea, a mini-van with a loudspeaker drove around the streets of the city just south of Seoul to tell locals to come and see the city’s team lift the trophy.
They did, expecting the sub-zero temperatures to be another advantage — but when the teams emerged it was the Korean players who were wrapped in thick coats with the visitors in shorts and shirts, ready to play.
It was, as Al-Ittihad’s coach Dragan Talajic confirmed, intentional. “We wanted to send a signal,” the Croatian said. “We had been asked a lot whether we could handle the Korean winter so we decided to show we could. I think the Seongnam players were surprised when they saw us.”
The shock levels rose when Tukar headed the opener after half an hour. Then, deep into first-half injury time, Hamzah Idris changed the tie, sweeping home from close range. It was now 3-3 on aggregate, but still Seongnam were ahead on away goals.
“Because of that second goal, they did not know what to do,” added Talajic. “They didn’t know whether to sit back and protect the lead or to attack.”
In the end, Seongnam did neither and Noor intervened just before the hour to put Ittihad ahead for the first time in the tie, netting again not long later.
It set the team up for the domination that followed in 2005 with Iordanescu and, in 2006, everybody expected Al-Ittihad to win again (back then, champions entered at the quarterfinal stage). They were surprisingly defeated by the dark horses of Syria, Al-Karama.
By that time, Kallon and Tcheco had departed as had Iordanescu, replaced by Bruno Metsu. Even the Frenchman, who had led Senegal to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, could not weave his magic and Al-Ittihad were out. They reached the final in 2009, though Pohang Steelers got some revenge on behalf of South Korea by winning the final in Tokyo.
There has been no third title and fans in Jeddah had to watch as Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal won the 2019 AFC Champions League. That just makes the memories of 2004 and 2005 all the sweeter in Jeddah and the time when Al-Ittihad ruled the continent should not be forgotten.