This is the first in two parts of my recent football watching experiences in the South Korean province of Gyeonggi-Do. Part 1 looks at the K-League, Part 2 the second-tier N-League.
In the north-west corner of South Korea, encircling the country’s capital, Seoul, sits Gyeonggi-Do, the country’s fifth largest province. The region’s impact on the sporting world has been modest. Manchester United’s Korean midfielder Park JiSung was born in Gyeonggi’s largest city, Suwon. Bucheon, a satellite city of Seoul, was the birthplace of Olympic gold medallist and figure-skating sensation Kim YuNa before she moved elsewhere in the province early in her life. Perhaps greatest of all is the 3-par, one-hole golf course situated at the US military’s Camp Bonifas at the heart of the DMZ that Sports Illustrated once called “The World’s Most Dangerous Golf Course.”
About a quarter of South Korea’s 48million(ish) population live in Gyeonggi and, by chance, it’s also home to a little over a quarter of the 48 teams in Korea’s three football leagues (2 from 16 K-League teams, 4 from 14 in the second tier N-League, and 7 from 18 in the Challengers League, to be exact).
Gyeonggi’s 13 football sides are largely accessible by Seoul’s excellent subway system, but with so many of them competing outside the league’s top-flight, the province had hardly featured in my footballing travels around the peninsula prior to the 2012 season. Partly this was laziness, partly this was lack of time, but mostly it boiled down to a lack of interest.
So, what changed? Well, some will probably feel it’s just about the opportunity to get one over my brother and Lost Boyos co-founder in the obscure groundhopping stakes. I’m sure his impromptu Saturday afternoon trip to Accrington Stanley was greeted by pals and peers with ironic shouts of “Who’re they?” but there was nothing ironic about the bemused looks on the faces of my friends and colleagues after a Friday night game in Goyang.
Sure, the obscurity makes it fun, but quite honestly it’s the level of time and interest that are mainly behind my sudden interest in Korean lower league football. I shan’t bore you with details of my own timetable changes, but the raised level of interest has a footballing theme at its root.
Professional football in South Korea began in 1983 with the formation of the K-League. The league has never been a closed shop- relocations and financial troubles have seen teams come and go, and expansions have allowed the league to grow from an original six to its current 16 teams- but no team has ever left the league for purely footballing reasons. That all changes this year.
In line with AFC rules on participating in the Asian Champions League, the KFA has introduced relegation to the K-League for the 2012 season. Two teams will be relegated from the K-League this year. One, Sangju Sangmu- the team for Korean professionals undertaking their 2-year military service- are already known. Little else is, chiefly where the relegated teams will end up playing, and when promotion will eventually be introduced.
30/03/12 Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 0-1 Busan I’Park, Tancheon Stadium (Attendance: 1886)
11/05/12 Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 1-0 Incheon United, Tancheon Stadium (3480)
“Your dream. Our reality.” This is the banner that hangs proudly off the single upper stand at Seongnam’s Tancheon Stadium. Alongside the text are the silhouettes of the two Asian Champions League trophies, seven K-League trophies, and two FA Cups that the club has won. It’s probably the best football banner I’ve seen in Korea. It’s arrogant, yes, but it comes across to me as witty, playful arrogance. What’s more, it achieves this in correct English- a rarity in Korean football grounds.
Seongnam’s success has not, as you can see from my photos, brought in the crowds. Instead, funding the team’s success, at least in part, has been the Unification Church – or to give them their more familiar name in the west “The Moonies.”
During the winter off-season, the church of Reverend Mun stumped up a huge amount of Won to bring Korean National Team midfielder YoonBit GaRam to the club. Yoon was one of the K-League’s most sought-after stars and Seongnam beat off competition from home and abroad to seal his coveted signature.
His arrival, it was hoped, would put Seongnam back among the challengers for the league title, but it hasn’t worked out that way (they are currently 10th). Yoon was, however, still the star attraction for me personally when I made visits to Tancheon in late March and early May.
Both games were Friday night affairs, as for the 2012 season the KFA have taken the extremely sensible decision of allowing the country’s Asian Champions League participants to play on Friday nights and get an extra day of rest ahead of their group stage games (the decision had mixed results: two of the four Korean sides made it through the groups. Seongnam are one of them).
Busan I’Park have been this season’s surprise package. After a higher-than-expected finish in 2011, many of the southerners’ most influential performers from last year were sold. I’Park have, against the odds, continued this season where they left off last year.
Seongnam dominated the game in terms of possession and shots. Yoon was tidy without being spectacular. Seongnam passed the ball around well, but couldn’t take any of their chances. Busan’s success this season has been built on a solid defence (they have the league’s best defensive record, conceding just seven goals in the season’s opening 13 matches) and here again they wore Seongnam down.
Again and again, a Busan defender got in a block, and when Seongnam did manage to get a shot on target, they couldn’t beat the impressive Jeong SangWook in goal. In the 89th minute, Busan broke quickly. Brazilian substitute Fagner held the ball up and released captain Kim ChangSoo who was charging forward from right-back. Kim carried the ball into the box and fired across the keeper for an unlikely, but not undeserved, winner.
Managerless Incheon United arrived at Tancheon in early May on the worst run of results in the side’s brief history. Placed 15th in the league, Incheon had won just two of their previous 30 matches in all competitions, and both of those wins were against Daejeon Citizen, the only team below them in the table.
The game turned out to be the opposite of the Seongnam-Busan game. The game was more even in shots, but this time it was the away side who had the larger share of possession. Incheon, just like Seongnam against Busan, couldn’t turn possession into chances, particularly in the second half.
Caretaker manager Kim BongIl went for the win with some attacking substitutions, bringing attack-minded players Jeon Hyuk and Ivo on in search of the three points. With just minutes to go though, the move back-fired.
With just two minutes to play, Incheon were continuing to attack and trying to get the three points. Ivo carried the ball from midfield, but, after a poor touch, was robbed near the Seongnam box. The ball was quickly played forward to Yoon on the halfway and, at the second attempt, he slipped a though-ball to Han SangWoon to seal the points for the home side.
Make that two wins in 31.
Highlights: Friday night football is great; Busan’s ex-Rangers midfielder Matt McKay looks a good addition to the K-League; Sharing my pre-game Starbucks with the Incheon reserve team (i.e. they were in the same Starbucks).
Low Points: Low crowds; few goals; seeing Incheon United’s woes continue