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.
23/03/12, Goyang KB 2-0 Ansan H FC, Uijeongbu Stadium (Attendance: 900 – hmm???)
20/04/12, Goyang KB 1-1 Yongin City, Goyang Stadium (320)
18/05/12 Ansan H FC 1-0 Busan Transport Corporation, Ansan Wa Stadium (150)
The relevance of the N-League has, as stated in the previous Lost in…Gyeonggi-Do post, risen in 2012 as it (or something similar, at least) is likely to be where the first side relegated from the K-League ends up, and will perhaps provide new K-League teams of its own in the near future.
It was for these reasons that I set off on a rainy March Friday afternoon to the city of Uijeongbu, an hour-or-so subway ride to the north of Seoul, for the season’s first Gyeonggi-derby: Goyang Kookmin Bank against Ansan H FC. Probably for the first time since my first K-League match some seven years previously, I was heading to a football match with no idea what to expect.
Nothing at or near Nogyang subway station suggested that there was a football match about to take place at the large stadium just about visible between the high-rise apartments buildings. It wasn’t until I was walking around the stadium’s upper walkway that the sound of drums and whistles convinced me that I hadn’t wasted a day-off in rainy Nowheresville.
The only open entrance was one of the huge gates that put you directly onto the running track with complete access to the field of play where the game was already underway. From there, it was up some rickety steel steps to my pick of 30,000+ empty seats, most of which were covered in bird excrement, despite the stadium being covered.
Finally seated, in a sufficiently clean section, I had the home fans to my right in the Curva Sud (Korean fan groups always use the Italian) with the away fans to my left on the halfway line. The home support were comfortably outsung throughout the 90 minutes, but this was hardly surprising given that the three die-hard members of Goyang’s Boreas -assumedly named after the Greek god of the north wind- were outnumbered by seven- or even eight-to-one by the visiting Ansan H FC fans (this is less of a shock than it may sound because, although Goyang were technically the home team, Uijeongbu Stadium is a near two-hour subway ride from both teams’ regular home grounds).
Little of footballing note took place in the opening 80 minutes. My main source of entertainment was the Ansan supporters, who were trying unsuccessfully to will their team on and create a semblance of atmosphere. A particular favourite was a series of chants to the theme of Spongebob Squarepants, each one ending with “An-San-Ay-Chi” (‘ay-chi’ is how most Koreans pronounce the Roman character ‘H’).
Finally, in the 85th minute, the deadlock was broken by Goyang when defender Jeong DaSeul headed in a corner at the far post. As the stadium clock ticked 90, substitute Ha JeongHun was put through one-on-one and slid the ball passed the onrushing Ansan keeper.
The win was the second in a winning streak that would stretch to six victories for Goyang, a run that ended when I attended their May 20th home game with another Gyeonggi-based team, Yongin City.
A crowd of 320 were at Goyang Stadium for another Friday night fixture, far less than on my previous visit in 2007 when a Toni Kroos-inspired Germany hammered an England team featuring Danny Welbeck 4-1 in the quarter-final of the FIFA U17 World Cup.
For once, the game started with a bang. Within six minutes, Goyang were awarded a penalty, Lee SangWoo had his penalty saved and the follow-up was also squandered. Goyang were controlling the game, but weren’t turning their possession into chances. The fans were, however, happy. The Boreas –probably numbering around twenty back in their more familiar home- were the first group of fans in Korea that I can remember shouting an entire chant in English: the familiar ditty, “We love you Goyang, we do.”
Yongin started the second half the better and within the opening ten minutes had struck the woodwork- with a back-heeled effort- and taken the lead throughKim DaeSik. A little more than ten minutes later, the Goyang defence gifted Yongin a chance to double their lead. They didn’t, and moments later they would rue the miss, as a foul by the Yongin goalkeeper gave Lee SangWoo the opportunity to make amends for his earlier missed spot-kick.
Lee- a wonderfully two-footed player who took corners with both feet, so that he was serving up inswingers from either side- scored and Goyang’s unbeaten start to the season remained intact. Goyang almost won it with the very last kick of the game, when Lee SuHwan’s volley from the edge of the penalty area crashed against the crossbar.
My recent Gyeonggi adventures ended just as they had begun with the first visit to Seongnam: a team from Busan travelling up to Gyeonggi to take on a Christian-run team, this time Busan Transport Corporation being the visitors to Ansan H FC.
The ‘H’ in Ansan’s team name was recently shortened from ‘Hallelujah’ to simply ‘H.’ Like Seongnam, Ansan have been through various guises and are in fact likely to face a further relocation in the near future. So, it was important to get down to the city’s Wa Stadium before the council kicked them out.
The game had in fact been scheduled for the ground’s smaller auxiliary pitch, and it wasn’t until I heard the kick-off whistle sound while walking around the impressive main stadium that I became aware of the venue switch.
My entry to the ground was further delayed by the fact I had to buy a ticket- the first time I’d been required to do so at this level- and when I finally got in, it turned out that, as usual, I hadn’t missed much.
Ansan hadn’t won since the end of March and had been knocked out of the FA Cup by (even) lower league opposition. They were, however, playing better than I remembered them playing against Goyang: they’re robust defending (meant positvely) seemed more robust; their fast breaks seemed faster.
In the opening ten minutes of the second half, Busan had a free-kick hit the post before Ansan’s Ju MyungGu was tripped and Oh Ki-Jae slotted the resulting penalty into the goal for the 1-0 win. Busan had a few chances to equalise, but the closest they came was when Ansan’s goalie spilled a shot that trickled agonisingly wide. In fact, it was Ansan who had the better chances in the games final third, counter-attacking quickly as Busan committed men further and further forward.
My N-League travels have resulted in more than six hours of subway travel to witness witness a decent level of football, but, unfortunately for me, just five goals. There were great moments though, such as the 11 Goyang players bowing in the Korean football tradition for their three fans at the end of the game in Uijeongbu.
Many of the top Korean football clubs are somewhat artificial, but perhaps the introduction of promotion (which will hopefully arrive within the next couple of seasons) will allow a club to grow more organically.
Some excellent stadiums are in place, even if a sustained level of interest is not quite there yet. Of course, more money would be needed from somewhere (probably sponsorship from a large company) to allow any of the N-League teams to compete week in, week out in the K-League, but perhaps a club could grow and compete.
Highlights: Nice stadiums; great fans, despite their small numbers; grassroots football; optimism for the future
Low Points: Stadiums too big for the level of interest; someone needs to clean Uijeongbu Stadium