INCHEON UNITED vs. DAEJEON CITIZEN
2012 Hyundai Oilbank K-League, March 24th
A little over seven years ago, on a very cold March night, I paid my first visit to Incheon’s Munhak World Cup Stadium. Chunnam Dragons were the visitors for that 2005 K-League Cup opener and Incheon ran out 1-0 winners courtesy of Hwang Yeon-Seok’s goal: a love affair was born.
The Munhak is the setting for many of my fondest memories of that first year living in Korea. Nevertheless, I felt little, if any, sadness when I heard that the team would be leaving the only home it had ever known. Its main problems were that the running track and low-rising stands distanced the fans from the action, and, coupled with the giant stadium never being anywhere near full, it meant matches lacked any real kind of atmosphere.
The team’s last game at the Munhak was on November 30th last year. Their new home opened on March 11th this year. One-time Incheon hero wrote his name into the record books as the first (and second) goalscorer at the brand new Sungui Arena Park as the Suwon Samsung Bluewings ruined the housewarming by inflicting a 2-0 defeat. Work commitments meant I wasn’t there for that opening fixture, but two weeks later I finally got to see the new home for myself.
The Stadium: Same same, but different
Let’s get this out of the way early: the Sungui Arena Park is the best place to watch football in Korea. My travels in Korean football are not extensive enough for this statement not be questioned by some, but in my limited experience, there really is nothing like it.
The Munhak’s major drawbacks- running track; too many seats- have both been dealt with: the new stadium has that most-vaunted of traits among the best European grounds that the fans are close to the action. The capacity, a little over 20,000, is a much more realistic target for a team that, come the end of the season, can usually be found somewhere in the K-League’s mid-table.
Some of the stadium’s other changes are much more innovative. The Sungui Arena is, I believe, the first K-League ground to feature a ‘safe standing’ area for home supporters. The concourses are inside the ground, facing the pitch meaning you can grab a snack or beer (Hite at W2500) during play without risking missing the game’s only goal. There are also space-heaters near the concessions to warm the body on cold evenings like the one when I was in-attendance.
Perhaps the most inspired of all the new features, on the flat concourse behind the stadium’s North Stand is a mini astroturf field for the entertainment of those kids who haven’t yet got the ability to sit through a 90-minute football match.
There are a few familiar sights and sounds for the those homesick Munhak regulars. The same group of cheerleaders greet you upon entering the stadium (although I didn’t notice them performing anywhere), and there’s the same old crane mascot (more on him later) with his Segway, despite, with there being no running track, having nowhere to ride it.
The soundtrack is the same: there’s the hymn prior to the player’s arrival; Guns and Roses Welcome to the Jungle as kick-off approaches; the Terminator theme for the 10-20 seconds immediately after kick-off (a personal favourite); victories are still greeted with Queen’s I was born to love you.
The new ground is not without criticism, however. The ticketing situation for the opening game was farcical and was no doubt a factor in the vastly smaller number of punters (down from more than 17,000 to a little over 2,000) that attended the second game. Worst of all, there appears to be roughly five bathrooms in the whole ground.
The Football: A relegation six-pointer
In the 21 games prior to the Daejeon match, Incheon United had won just once. That single victory, their last at the Munhak, was against Daejeon Citizen. After the opening three rounds of the K-League, Incheon and Daejeon were in 15th and 16th places respectively (in a 16-team league) and had mustered just one wind-assisted goal between them.
For the first time in K-League history, the 2012 season will see two teams relegated, so this fixture provided the first opportunity for football fans on the peninsula to use the ‘relegation six-pointer’ cliche.
The game lived up its billing in fairly dour first-half with no real chances of note. Daejeon shaded possession, but managed just a single shot at goal. After 20 minutes, they lost their highest profile winter recruit, Belgian striker Kevin Oris, who had been ineffective up until then. Incheon managed five attempts, but none troubled the Daejeon keeper.
The second half was a slightly less cagey affair. On 53 minutes, the two players who it is hoped will help fill Incheon’s new home – 2002 World Cup veterans Kim Nam-Il and Seol Ki-Hyun- combined to put the home side ahead. The Daejeon defence were seemingly asleep as Kim chipped over a ball from midfield that found Seol in acres of space and the 33-year old former Wolves, Reading, and Fulham forward finished first time with his left foot.
Seven minutes later, the impressive Kim Jae-Woong cut into the area from the left and was felled by a Daejeon defender. Penalty. Seol placed the ball on the spot and fired up the middle for a two-goal lead.
Daejeon got a goal back six minutes later. Kwon Jung-Hyuk in the Incheon goal did well to keep out the first effort, but Kim Tae-Yoon’s comedy defending when the ball was returned allowed Heo Beom-San to easily finish for 2-1. This could have led to a tense finale, but in truth neither really looked like scoring again.
This was a much better Incheon performance than the one witnessed against Jeju United three weeks earlier. The Brazilian Ivo looks a decent player in-behind Seol and his countryman Nando looks more settled. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but relegation shouldn’t really be a worry, particularly if Seol can stay in the goals.
The Kerfuffle: Mascot loses his head
On a cold Saturday night, when you’ve just seen your team to lose to root them firmly to the bottom of the league, the last thing you want is to be goaded by some idiot in a bird-suit: but that’s what the travelling Daejeon fans were subjected to after this game.
In front of the stadium’s South Stand, Incheon players and fans were rejoicing together in typical Korean post-match scenes. Instead of joining in with them, the mascot decided the best place for his flag-waving and badge kissing would be the stadium’s opposite end, right in front of the Daejeon fans.
What happened next was shameful, embarrassing, and highly-amusing. First a Daejeon fan leapt the small barrier to the field and rugby tackle the mascot. He was joined by another who got in a few punches before security and the Daejeon players dragged the assailants from the birdman, allowing him to flee to safety (re-attaching his head as he did so).
While this was going on, some Incheon fans made their way into the Daejeon end- security, like the players, seemed to knock off with the ‘peep, peep’ of the referee’s final whistle- and began gesticulating how unhappy they were with the Daejeon fans’ behaviour and tearing at their banners.
Gesticulating soon turned to pushing and shoving and eventually led to punches being thrown. By the time I’d got around to sneak a look at what was going on, the section had been closed off by the big men with suits and earpieces – something it seems their bright yellow-coated colleagues lacked either the authority or competence (or both) to do themselves.
From this onlooker’s point of view, it was all getting a bit boring by the time the first shouts of ‘Gyeong-chal’ (police) were being heard, although there have been reports that trouble was still brewing as late as two hours after the match finished.
It was a sad end to the evening. Just as the ticketing farce two weeks before had been, this seemed a little self-inflicted. Yes, the reaction of the Daejeon fans who ran on the field is indefensible, but why was the mascot anywhere near them in the first place? Perhaps more importantly, how was it so easy for the Incheon fans to gain access to the Daejeon supporters?
This kind of fan violence inside a Korean football stadium is extremely rare, and it’s likely the trouble at this game will remain to be an isolated incident, but when added to the Suwon game’s ticketing nightmare, and the team’s generally poor start to the new season, it’s certainly been a baptism of fire for Incheon United’s new home.
Highlights: A great new stadium; a first win of the season and Seol Ki-Hyun’s first goals for Incheon; seeing the mascot get beaten up.
Lowlights: The disappointingly low turnout; Did I mention the great stadium? Shame about the on show there; seeing the mascot get beaten up