Seoul. Despite, by most calculations, being home to around ten million people, this gigantic city is home to just a single professional team: FC Seoul.
Although the club have this massive fanbase all to themselves (well sort of; there are three lower league clubs in the city and quick and easy transport links to several other K-League teams), FC Seoul very rarely come close to filling their 60,000+ seater home stadium. Part of FC Seoul’s lack of appeal is their sullied history. Their corporate ownership model is not unusual in Korean football- most of the K-League’s more successful clubs are owned and financed by Korea’s globally-successful conglomerates- but the decision by owners GS to move their team from its eight-year home in Anyang to the vacant World Cup Stadium in Seoul in 2004 still rankles many Korean football fans.
This idea of ‘franchise clubs’ is mostly foreign and frightening to football fans in Europe; in England, it is still fashionable to chastise MK Dons who, coincidentally, also came into being in 2004. Similarly, few in Korean football seem willing to move on from Anyang Cheetahs’ rebirth as FC Seoul, leading them to become commonly known as Buk-Pae (Northern Traitors)
Being personally unaffected by the move, and having known next-to-nothing of their history during my early time in South Korea, I developed something of a soft-spot for the capital side. This emotional affair- I actually support one of their local rivals, Incheon United- began on a hot Sunday night in the summer of 2005. My then girlfriend (and now wife) and another friend ventured along to the Seoul World Cup Stadium to watch FC Seoul take on Pohang Steelers.
Part of the attraction was that the game was attended by a then K-League record 48,000 audience and it was great being part of a big, noisy football crowd. Mostly though, it was the performance of a young striker that I was certain would soon become a star at a big European club. That striker was Park ChuYoung.
Park captained Korea to the Asian U20 title in 2004 and joined FC Seoul in the K-League draft of the same year. He finished his debut season as the league’s second top-scorer with 12 goals in 19 games, and scored six more cup goals, three of those league goals coming in that match against Pohang.
Anyway, back to the present. Last Saturday was an occasion when FC Seoul are able to pull in a large crowd, as the visitors were their biggest rivals, Suwon Samsung Bluewings. This match-up has become the biggest in Korean football, earning itself the moniker ‘Super Match’. Seoul and Suwon are comfortably Korea’s two best-supported clubs, as well as being two of the best-financed and having some of the league’s biggest stars. Suwon, have been the more successful of the two during the FC Seoul years, winning two titles to Seoul’s one, and picking up two FA Cups in the same period.
The morning of the game was spent at a 5-a-side tournament where my team finished up as quarter-finalists, despite winning just one of our four games. The tournament was in unfamiliar territory for us, in the city of Goyang just to the north-west of the capital, but we did manage to find our familiar post game meal. Dak-do-ri-tang is a kind of spicy chicken soup with potatoes, carrots, and onions. The proprietor of this particular restaurant, thankful for some custom on a hot and sweaty Saturday afternoon, even threw some ‘service’ (some form of gratuity to thank customers) chicken feet, although few of us indulged in the owner’s, eh.., generous offering.
Over soup and beer, I managed to twist some of my teammates’ arms into joining me at the big game later that evening. Next it was back to my apartment for showers, more beer, and some FIFA 12 (I was soundly beaten at my own game by someone far younger and more familiar with the modern version of the game than I), before the 20-minute subway ride to the stadium.
At the stadium, we were met by another teammate bringing our number to five: a Steaua Bucharest fan, a Millwall fan, and an Arsenal fan with his Manchester United-supporting Korean girlfriend. First priority was the tickets- not bad at a little over £5- and easily purchased without the long waits that have plagued the Super Match in the past. Arsenal got the first round in, the slightly-chilled beers were a relief on a very humid Seoul evening- and it was off to our seats in the North Stand that is home to the loudest section of FC Seoul’s support.
Although FC Seoul came into the game at the top of the re-formatted 2012 K-League, it was Suwon that had had the better of the recent fixtures between the two. Suwon have won the last six head-to-heads, while current FC Seoul manager Choi YoungSoo, a member of South Korea’s successful 2002 World Cup squad, had lost each of his three meetings with his club’s biggest rivals. In 2012’s first Super Match, Seoul supporters highlighted their annoyance at this on-going failure to defeat their biggest rivals after an FA Cup defeat earlier season by attacking the team bus.Suwon really needed to continue their winning streak against Seoul, as some mixed results during the summer months had caused them to fall behind the leaders and second-placed Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors; the gap between the rivals was ten points ahead of the game. FC Seoul, however, were favourites for the win given home advantage- they were yet to lose in 13 home games in the 2012 K-League- and the fact that Suwon were missing three key players through suspension, and still without first choice goalkeeper Jung SungRyung after his Olympic exploits (although argue that he has not really been missed).
The pre-game entertainment included a card display by the Seoul fans to leave the away support in no doubt who the league leaders were (it reads ‘K-League No.1’), a performance by girl group Glam, and after being treated to a montage of the best bits from Korea’s run to an Olympic football bronze medal, an appearance by Korean football legend and Olympic team manager, Hong MyungBo. The 2002 World Cup captain Hong gave the crowd a few words, and then it was finally time for the football.
The teams were announced to the usual boos and cheers. Both teams’ forward lines were led by former Incheon United strikers from Montenegro. Suwon’s Dzenan Radoncic is currently playing in his ninth K-League season, with Suwon being his third K-League club (I once met Radoncic on Haeundae beach in Busan before a league game, but unlike my brother’s posts, there is no photo to prove it). FC Seoul’s attack was led by the far more prolific Dejan Damjanovic. Dejan, as he is affectionately known by the Seoul faithful, arrived in Korea in 2007. He is the current league top-scorer and this season become highest-scoring foreigner in the history of Korean football.
The game started, as all FC Seoul games do, with a bang; each kick-off (and goal) is greeted with fireworks shooting from the ground behind the goal. From our upper-deck vantage point, that meant the first minute or two of the game was seen through a thin, smokey mist, but we didn’t miss anything of note.
Then the game, figuratively speaking this time, exploded into life. First, FC Seoul keeper Kim Yong-Dae launched a huge kick upfield that found Dejan, and suddenly he was one-on-one with the keeper. His shot was saved at the near post by Suwon’s stand-in keeper, and then Colombian Mauricio Molina curled the resulting corner onto the bar. A few minutes later, and at the other end, Suwon were awarded a fairly soft penalty when Radoncic was pushed in the back. He stepped up to send Kim the wrong way and give Suwon the lead.
FC Seoul tried their best to equalise quickly. First Molina hit the bar again, this time from close range. Next, captain Ha DaeSung had a shot from distance well saved, and Dejan headed over from 10 yards. All this excitement meant more beer, so off went our Steaua fan, but by now the beers were warm. Radoncic had one final chance on the counter before the break, but was hesitant and the opportunity was lost.
The half-time show meant more rejoicing in Korea’s Olympic football success. Two FC Seoul alumni, Ki SeungYueng and, my old favourite, Park ChuYoung, returned to the World Cup Stadium to receive the applause their exploits deserved. However, the big screen replay of Ki’s quarter-final-winning penalty made uncomfortable viewing for the one slave-to-advertising in the ground wearing a TeamGB replica shirt: me.
That was my cue to get the second half beers. Suwon had the first clear chance after the break, and Lee Sang Ho really should have done better with his effort from just six yards out. Dejan miscued a similarly guilt-edged chance on the hour, and when Brazilian Adi missed with an open net, it was clearly not going to be Seoul’s night. It would be hard to criticise the Brazilian, though, as the ball arrived at his head very unexpectedly after Suwon keeper Yang completely missed the corner.
Suwon’s crossbar was struck for a third time by Goh YoHan, before Suwon killed the game off. Cho JiHun countered quickly, and his deflected cross found Radoncic with an empty net a couple of yards out. He smashed the ball home, and then milked the adulation of the Suwon fans by mimicking Mario Balotelli’s Euro 2012 strongman celebration.
We finished our final beers- cold ones that our Millwall supporting friend had somehow found- and departed a few minutes early (not something I usually support) to avoid the subway crush. On the way out, I received the thumbs up from some Koreans in Manchester United shirts, presumably because of ‘GIGGS #11’ being on the back of my GB shirt. United shirts were still the third most common football shirt on-show- after Seoul and Suwon- suggesting that the level of ill-feeling in Korea towards the club over the sale of Park JiSung is perhaps exaggerated.
Finally, it was home to watch Park captain his new side QPR against Swansea City on TV. As I settled into my seat, who was I to see on my screen, but my brother in the middle of his very own Lost In… adventure.
Highs: Another big K-League crowd and a good atmosphere; enjoyed seeing Radoncic bang in a few goals.
Lows: Warm beer; game failed to live up to the hype.