Poor Pele. Perhaps the global game’s greatest star, the Brazilian has maintained his high profile by bickering with Diego Maradona, endorsing an erectile dysfunction drug, and making horrible predictions about the future of the game over which he once ruled. Among his more famous gaffes was his claim that an African nation would win the World Cup by the year 2000. The continent had produced two Olympic gold medal-winning sides by the turn of the 21st century, but had (and still has) only managed a few stirring quarter final finishes at the Big One.
For fans, like me, of Asian football, we can only breathe a sigh of relief that Pele is yet to give the kiss of death to football’s coming continent. In 2012, Asian football collected it’s third and fourth Olympic football medals (South Korea’s men taking bronze in London, and Japan’s women going one better in achieving silver), and more and more Asians made the move to Europe.
Back in the East, the Asian game’s continuing growth can be witnessed by the quality of its imports in 2012. Take, for example, the five UEFA Champions League Winners’ medals and 154 UCL goals shared between Raul, Alessandro Del-Piero, and Didier Drogba, each of of whom can now be found at Asian clubs. The list goes on. Marcello Lippi, Seydou Keita, Nicolas Anelka, and Fredi Kanoute are among other big names now plying their trade in the Middle and Far East.
Luckily for me, I’ve got to see many of 2012’s sucesses on TV and in the stadiums. My own experiences have a strong Korean
bias influence given my base in Seoul. Here are some of my favourite experiences from the 29 matches, 73 goals, 18 stadiums, and the thousands of kilometres that I’ve covered in the past 12 months.
NOTE: To avoid any confusion, I’m using ‘Best’ to mean my own personal favourite.
BEST STADIUM: Free rain ponchos, a half-time saxophonist, free beer, and free fried chicken; there was much to enjoy about my trip to the Changwon Football Centre at the climax of a three-matches-in-three-days tour of Korea’s Gyeongsan Province. As well as the generosity of the hosts, the stadium has a lovely setting on the side of a mountain and is free of a running track, something that can’t be said for too many grounds in Korea . Home side Gyeongnam FC have even eschewed the market stall / portacabin method used by most other clubs to sell their wares and installed a proper club megastore in the stadium. Just a shame the game, a particularly dull 0-0 draw, against Incheon United was one of the worst I saw all year.
Honourable Mentions: Incheon United’s Sungeui Arena Park is among the best in Korea.
BEST BANNER: There was nothing fancy about Army United‘s banner (above) at the Thai FA Cup Final, but their fans receive this award for their perseverance as the banner literally came apart at the seams.
Honourable Mentions: I always enjoy seeing Koreans put two English words together to make new words, so Kudos to this Incheon-supporting lady for having creativity to match her radiance (it does say ‘radiant’ behind the cameraman, I promise).
BEST PLAYER: No one causes debate among my own small band of K-League-watching friends like Dejan Damjanovic. They’re not keen, objecting that he’s lazy and isn’t a team player. I, on the other hand, think he’s great. As an Incheon United fan, I’m not supposed to say that about our former top-scorer who jumped ship for local rivals FC Seoul, but he’s bloody brilliant. This year he scored a K-League record 32 goals and bagged the league’s MVP award. He even bagged a winner in Montenegro’s World Cup qualifier in Kiev proving he can score goals on the biggest stage. My favourite moment was an assist away at Sangju when he took two defenders away from goal and back-heeled the ball into the path of Ko YoHan to score.
Honourable Mentions: The form of Incheon captain Jung InHwan has seen him become a national team regular; Nam JoonJae made a spectacular impact after returning to Incheon from Jeju with eight goals in 22 K-League games; Teerasil Dangda scored two during my visit to the Thai Premier League and showed why he has been linked with a move to Europe.
BEST TROPHY PRESENTATION: In the space of a busy, but entertaining three weeks, I got to see the presentations of the Thai Premier League trophy, the Thai FA Cup, and the K-League champions trophy. None of those, however, could match the utter madness that was the 2012 Peace Cup. For those unaware, the Peace Cup is an invitational tournament organized sporadically by the Unification Church (or, as they more crudely referred to ‘The Moonies’). Previous winners include PSV, Lyon, Spurs, and Aston Villa, and in 2012 it was the turn of Hamburg.
After defeating the Church’s own team, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, in the final, the HSV players were made to wait a long time on the pitch before receiving their trophy. The stadium was plunged, intentionally, into darkness. Cue dramatic music, a spectacular laser show, and, for the the big finale, a screeching, flaming Phoenix gliding down from the roof of one of the stands. The Unification Church has sadly since abolished the Peace Cup as part of cost-cutting measures. Given this kind of elaborate spending, I’m not surprised.
BEST GAME: Incheon United’s move to their new home got off to a difficult start with a 2-0 loss to Suwon Bluewings. However, that result was just one of two losses in the 22 K-League games played at the Sungeui Arena Park.
As amusing as seeing Incheon United‘s, umm, let’s just call him cheeky, mascot take a beating in the team’s first home victory of the season was*, my own highlight was a 3-2 victory over FC Seoul. A superb curling free-kick from Kim JinKyu put the away side ahead, but a Han GyoWan double gave the home side the lead. The excellent Seoul captain Ha DaeSung levelled, before Dejan missed a penalty.
Seol KiHyeon had been replaced by Paulo Junior, recently recruited from. The Brazilian’s cameo had been very unimpressive, but in injury-time he bundled in cross for a famous win. His form, however, never did improve. He played just five times and this was his only goal.
BEST MATCH DAY FOOD: It’s been a great year for free food. At various times I’ve been given free chicken, hotdogs, and kimbap. That’s all great, but I’m still happier paying my 2,000KRW for a spicy dakkochi. The ones pictured below at Chunnam Dragons home in Gwangyang were this year’s best.
BEST FANS: FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings have their faults, but their respective sets of fans are the K-League’s best at generating an atmosphere. It was in the home end at Suwon’s Big Bird stadium that I found the best fans in 2012, although it was not any of the Bluewings’ various fan-factions. A group of around 50 Sunderland fans traveled from north-eastern England to hot and sticky Suwon for the 2012 Peace Cup. The travelling Mackens got to see their side lose to K-League Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, but there was respite in the 3-2 win over FC Groningen that gave the Black Cats third place overall.
The travelling Mackems used their drums and microphones to gee up the crowd and taunt the only person in the stand proudly wearing his new Manchester United shirt: Me. Despite the chants of “You’re not Champions any more,” and “Let’s all do the Poznan,” the guys I spoke to were all very friendly and their commitment to travel so far for a pre-season tournament is to be commended.
BEST GOAL: Sadly, I didn’t witness any truly great goals in 2012, so, among several decent free-kicks, I’ve gone for Milivoje Novakovic‘s goal for Omiya Ardija against Cerezo Osaka. I’d gone to Japan for the weekend just to watch this game and Novakovic’s lovely curled effort helped to open up a cagey game and set Omiya on their way to an important victory on their (ultimately successful) fight to stave off relegation.
Honourable Mentions: Kim Jin Kyu’s free-kick in the above-mentioned Incheon-Seoul thriller; Acrobatic finishes from Suk HyunJun (FC Groningen vs. Sunderland) and Mauricio Molina (FC Seoul vs Jeonbuk)
* Lost Boyos do not generally endorse violence towards club mascots.