The World Cup, for me, is about great football and great players, great footballing cities and great stadiums. While this may be true of World Cup final matches, or perhaps even the latter knock-out rounds, it’s very easy to forget that the tournament has also visited some slightly obscure destinations.
Few locations can have been further off football’s beaten track than Seogwipo. In 2002, Korean organisers brought the world’s biggest sporting event to the fishing town on Jeju Island in an effort to boost tourism on the semi-tropical, volcanic rock 130km off the peninsula’s south-western tip. Already popular among honeymooning Korean couples, the plan was that the international exposure on offer from the World Cup would bring in travellers from further afield.
Last year, Jeju was named as one of the world’s Seven New Wonders of Nature, but it wasn’t Korea’s highest mountain, nor what is believed to be Asia’s only waterfall that flows directly into the sea (although I did manage to catch a glimpse) that attracted me to the island for my first visit last weekend. No, I was there to see Incheon United take on Jeju United in the opening round of the Hyundai Oilbank 2012 K-League.
My one-hour(ish) flight from Seoul landed at Jeju International Airport at 10am on Sunday morning and after a one-hour bus-trip, I was in Seogwipo. Initially, I had planned to cycle around the city and ride out to the stadium, but the terrible weather (and the hills) put me off.
Instead, I walked the 15 minutes out to Asia’s-only-waterfall-that-flows-directly-into-the-sea, grabbed some lunch in the city centre and took a very cheap taxi-ride out to the stadium.
The stadium is set on a small plain at the foot of Hallasan National Park, the volcanic mountain range that dominates the island, and it’s basin-like shape is meant to mimic the 1950m -high volcano at the island’s heart. The location- orange trees; palm trees; a see view- is spectacular, but Sunday was not a day for enjoying the surroundings. Hallasan was hidden behind dark grey clouds and wind and rain lashed the stadium’s south stand where I and around 30 other traveling Incheon fans were sat, unprotected by the stadium’s single arcing cover.
This was my third time to watch a match involving Jeju United. The first, in 2006, was an extremely controversial affair as it was the first time the team returned to one of Korea’s northern provinces that had been the team’s home since the K-League began in 1983. Team-backers SK, one of Korea’s jaebol (the large conglomerates that control much of the Korean economy), decided that the team would be better off playing in Seogwipo’s 35,000 capacity stadium- empty and unused since the World Cup- rather than in the municipal stadium in Bucheon, a satellite city that sits between Incheon and Seoul.
The away end at Incheon’s Munhak Stadium on that occasion was full of fans of SK Bucheon, as the team had been known before the move, wearing black t-shirts and waving black flags to mourn the ‘death’ of their team. The match ended 0-0 (and if you look very carefully in the programme of that match, you’ll see yours truly in one of the crowd shots).
The next time saw them take on FC Seoul, a team with a similarly-chequered past, in the second-leg of the 2010 K-League Championship Play-off Final. The first leg ended 2-2 in Seogwipo, but Seoul were 2-1 winners in the capital to seal a first title in their FC Seoul guise, and fourth overall.
Although lacking the drama that surrounded those previous encounters, I was more excited about this one. The first day of a new season is always is a time of excitement and optimism. Incheon had had a disastrous end to the 2011 season, but all that had been forgotten. This season, they would be playing in a brand-new, football-specific stadium and had made some interesting moves in the transfer market.
The away end at Seogwipo on Sunday, as well as being open to the elements, seemed to be cut-off from everything: the signposts pointing to the toilets and other facilities led only to looked doors. Still, what do you want for a ticket that cost roughly the equivalent of £3.
The teams were announced and there were several surprises in the Incheon team. In goal, Kwon Jung-Hyuk, who spent most of last season as number one after the tragic suicide of Yoon Ki-Won, had been replaced by new-signing Yoo Hyun. Jeong In-Hwan took over the captaincy from the departed Bae Hyo-Sung and was partnered in the centre of defence with another new arrival, Kim Tae-Yoon. Kim Nam-Il, an Incheon-born, 85-cap midfielder, was the winter’s big-name signing, and he joined Brazilian Nando, yet another new player, in front of the back four. Last year’s top-scorer, Park Jun-Tae began on the bench, as did Seol Ki-Hyun, the former Wolves, Reading, and Fulham forward that also joined in the winter. While the team had some of its strongest attacking players on the bench, the shape certainly looked more attacking than the defensive set-up that had been commonplace last season.
Some very uninspiring cheerleaders (I was cold in my three layers and rainproof jacket, so I can only guess how they were feeling in their mini-skirts) filled the void between the warm-ups and the kick-off, and at 3:00pm we were off. Incheon looked tidy in the opening exchanges with 35-year-old Kim Nam-Il showing some neat touches, but it was mostly downhill from there.
Incheon began to give the ball away (amazing given the shockingly bright orange of the Jeju shirts) and Jeju began to dominate. Right-winger Bae Il-Han was very threatening and he got the opening goal on 29 minutes heading in a cross from Song Jin-Hyung, a player from whom much is expected on his K-League return after spells in France and Australia. Bae and Santos both wasted good chances in a first half dominated by Jeju, as Incheon were lucky to go into the break only one goal behind.
As kick-off for the second half approached the wind and rain began to ease. I’d also found an open door that led not only to the toilet, but also to somebody selling food and drink. Taking my ramyeon (posh Pot Noodle that’s not really posh at all) and two cans of Cass lager back to my seat (yes UK readers, beer in my seat), it was announced that Seol Ki-Hyun would be replacing Lee Hyo-Kyun up-front. Things were looking up.
Again, Incheon started well-enough, but when Koo Bon-Sang was dismissed for two yellows on 65 minutes, comically receiving his marching orders while lying injured on the golf buggy that carts away injured players, the game was effectively over. Two minutes later, Jair played in Santos and this time the Brazilian didn’t hesitate. 2-0.
Jeju were now in control and eight minutes later the result was put beyond doubt. Kim Nam-Il lost the ball in midfield and this time it was Santos who was the provider for Jair to net the third and send almost everyone in the 6,200 crowd home with a smile on their face.
Incheon laboured on and managed a consolation in the final minutes. Kim Tae-Yoon’s in-swinging cross from the left got caught in the wind and ended up in the far corner of the net.
Next weekend, Incheon christen their new home with the visit of Suwon Bluewings. Work commitments mean I won’t be there for the opening of the fantastic-looking new stadium. However, if this performance is anything to go by, I might be glad I missed it.
HIGHLIGHTS: Cheap taxis, food, drink. Great stadium with a great setting. Seol Ki-Hyun and Jung Hyuk looked promising.
LOW POINTS: Weather. Low crowd for opening day (despite weather). The result and performance.
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