For two consecutive Sundays, tired and hungover, I’ve got up early and headed to Yongsan Station for a KTX- Korea’s own bullet train- down the country’s west coast line to the southern province of Jeollanam-Do.
On the first of these trips, it was the 5:20am train to Mokpo. From there, it was a short free shuttle bus ride out to Yeongam and the home of the Korean F1 Grand Prix. The pinnacle of Motorsport, F1 gives spectators the chance to see the best in the business at each of its 20 races, so even at 5am and with a meagre four hours sleep it was easy to get excited for the long day ahead. And heck, if the race turned out to be boring- it was something of a procession- then there was the added bonus of a free concert from Gangnam Style performer PSY after the chequered flag. How could my next trip possibly live up to all this excitement?
Well, the following Sunday began with a more manageable 8:55am train heading to Suncheon on the south coast. However, Chunnam Dragons versus Incheon United is not the pinnacle of football; Chunnam Dragons versus Incheon United is a long way even from being the pinnacle of Korean football, and the players on show would be far from the best players the sport has to offer. I was excited, though. It’s always nice to visit a new ground and the Dragons’ home is one that is spoken of fondly in the small Korean groundhopping circles. The fixture is also a moderately sentimental one for me as an Incheon-Chunnam game back in 2005 was my first experience of domestic football in Korea.
When I last reported on Incheon United, the managerless Nerazzurri (Koreans like Italian fan culture) were languishing in the relegation zone and had just seen their mascot beaten up by some away supporters. Thankfully, the mascot recovered, and so too did Incheon’s season. After handing the managerial reins to Kim BongGil full-time, Incheon mounted a strong comeback and only missed out on a place in the league’s top half -the K-League introduced a Scottish style split for 2012- by a single point. Coming into the Chunnam game, Incheon were unbeaten in 11 matches pre- and post-split.
I spent most of the train ride asleep, but having witnessed the same countryside just a week previously, I didn’t feel guilty about this. At Suncheon, I switched trains and a further ten minutes down the line, I arrived in Gwangyang- home of the Chunnam Dragons.
Although arriving at the station, you’d think Gwangyang would be the last place in the world that a professional football team might call home. Exiting the modern terminal, you are given a very rural greeting of fields and greenhouses, so, with no buses or taxis in sight, I set off on foot towards the apartment blocks in the distance. The short, pleasant walk along a river brought me to the old part of Gwangyang- the new town, which has built up around the steelworks and container port, was about ten miles away- but lunch choices were uninspiring, so I decided to take my chances with the stadium. Instant noodles would have to do.
Chunnam Dragons follow the popular Korean corporate ownership model and thus their home ground is located near to the works of global steel giants Posco. It’s a nice small ground, notable for its lack of running track and towering, oval-shaped floodlights. Fortunately, there were plenty of food choices around this somewhat isolated ground and I settled on my favorite pre-game fare: dakkochi (spicy chicken skewers).
The highlight of the day came when I noticed a line of people in front of a tent during lap of the stadium’s exterior. This kind of thing is commonplace at Korean football grounds and invariably it means people are signing up for free stuff. This, though, was different. These people were queuing for a chance to meet 2002 World Cup hero Ahn JungHwan. Ahn, of course, outjumped Paolo Maldini and headed a golden goal past Gianluigi Buffon that sent Korea into the tournament quarter-finals, then was promptly fired by his Italian club side Perugia. Ahn was signing some Dragons’ shields, so I joined the queue and waited patiently to meet the great man and collect my own signed shield. Despite having just been placed in a Level 2 Korean class, I could manage nothing braver or more interesting than anyong haseyo (hello). In return, there was eye contact and a smile from his handsome face which, I think, is more than many others got.
Onto the football. Three of Ahn’s 2002 World Cup teammates were on show; Goalkeeper Lee WoonJae for Chunnam, and Seol KiHyun and Kim NamIl for Incheon. Manager Kim BongGil again picked his strongest eleven for a competition that is becoming more and more meaningless by the week for Incheon. Chunnam still have some relegation worries of their own, so it was surprising that they didn’t play with more urgency.
For the whole game, in fact, the game was played at a very slow tempo, even by K-League standards. When Chunnam did attack, they came up against a centre-back in Jung InHwan who is currently really at the top of his game. The Incheon captain has become a regular in the national team set-up and he recently started his first competitive international. Chances were few and far between, both teams relying on trying to get crosses into the box or shooting from distance. There genuinely was little of footballing note to discuss in this 0-0 draw, and both teams’ willingness to take a point was clear from the number of times players from both sides stayed down injured in the final ten minutes.
Much of the football I’ve seen post-split, live or on TV, has been played this way. I understand the reasons for the split season, but I hope it is not something the K-League persists with. For one, a 44-game is too long (although this will reduce slightly next year to 40 if the same system remains in place next year). Secondly, many of the post-split games will become deadrubber fixtures. In the top half, Gyeongnam know they are guaranteed eighth no matter how poorly they perform. Likewise, Incheon know they can finish ninth at best, even were they to win all their remaining fixtures. Only a few teams really have the incentive to perform, particularly in the bottom half. Fans seem to share these views with attendances falling below pre-split averages.
I left the ground at the final whistle and was thankful to see plenty of taxis outside the ground to me back to the deserted train station. Four hours of train journeys later, it was back to the civilisation of Seoul. I shan’t be rushing back to Gwangyang, but it is a nice little ground and I’m glad I made the trip
HIGHS: Meeting Ahn JungHwan; nice compact football ground; Incheon United’s unbeaten run stretches to 12 matches
LOWS: Pretty dull football; isolated stadium/station