May 8th, 2013 is likely to go down in football history as the day Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down after 26 years at Manchester United and more than 40 years in football management. In South Korean football, May 8th also carries a great deal of significance as it marks the first game ever played in the country’s K-League . On the day that Fergie retired, the K-League, Asia’s oldest existing professional league, was celebrating 30 years since a 1-1 draw between Yukong and Hallelujah in Seoul’s Dongdaemun Stadium in 1983.
Those thirty years have produced some interesting club names in Korea, Hallelujah being one. There have been Atoms and Royals, too. Animals have featured strongly, with Elephants, Dolphins, Buffalo, and Tigers all making appearances. Many are now extinct (the clubs, not the animals), or at least reincarnated in a more football friendly guise.
Among those to have morphed were the Anyang LG Cheetahs. The club began life in the K-League in 1984 as Lucky-Goldstar Hwangso and were champions in 1985 and 1990. The latter triumph was to be the last before the team became known as LG Cheetahs, but in 1991 finished bottom of the league. In 1995, Anyang was added to the name as the club moved to the city from Seoul, again finishing bottom of the league in their first season under a new name. They remained among the league’s bottom feeders until securing a third title in 2000.
That was the only league title for Anyang and in 2003 came the club’s controversial move into the country’s capital to become known as current Korean champions FC Seoul. The move has seen FC Seoul become probably the most hated team among Korean football fans with the nickname Buk-Pae (roughly, ‘Northern Traitors’) regularly attached to them (Jeju United, who began life as Yukyong, are Nam-Pae- ‘Southern Traitors’- for their similar 2006 switch from Bucheon to the island of Jeju).
Last year, happily, there was redemption for the city of Anyang and its long-suffering football supporters. Nine years after the Cheetahs’ departure, it was announced that football would be returning to the city in 2013 with a club taking part in the K-League Challenge, a brand-new second-tier to the K-League (now called the K-League Classic – What was wrong with K1 and K2, we can only guess).
The new club was names FC Anyang, and although their early league form has not been good, a Second Round FA Cup win allowed for a potential MK dons-AFC Wimbledon scenario against FC Seoul. The draw was, however, kind (although I’m sure some of the new club’s fans would have welcomed a chance to vent the anger they feel towards their former owners) and pitted the newly-formed outfit against local rivals Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
In the days of Anyang Cheetahs, matches against Suwon were among the biggest in the country, but the Jijidae Derby- named after a hill separating the two Gyeonggi Province cities- has been missing from the Korean football calendar for ten years. Finally, it returned this week.
Suwon were clear favourites, sitting second in the K-League Classic while Anyang languished at the bottom of the K-League Challenge. Anyang were not be discounted, though, as their manager and the bulk of their squad had come from the now disbanded Goyang KB team that had a reputation for giantkilling and knocked out two top-flight teams in the previous year’s tournament.
I was excited about this fixture as soon as the date and time and were confirmed, but getting to Anyang proved to be much more of a challenge than expected. I had planned my day out like this: finish work at 4pm; have a coffee/early dinner in Gangnam (yes, the one from the song); take the subway to Anyang; soak up the pre-game atmosphere of a derby that had been brewing for ten years; watch epic cup battle between two local rivals.
However, things didn’t exactly work out that way. First, my wife called in sick and I had to cover one of her classes at work, pushing my finishing time back by two hours and ruling out dinner in Gangnam. Then, after the class had finished, I went back to the staff room to be greeted by a smiling Liverpool fan confirming that the rumours of Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure were indeed true. With an hour-long, rush-hour subway ride to look forward to, a sick wife at home, and gazillions of newspaper articles and blog posts revering Sir Alex and speculating about his successor, I considered backing out.
This was a big game, though. A historical game even, so I put the goings-on at Old Trafford and a potential marital dispute to the back of mind and made my way to Seoul National University of Education subway station for what my phone app told me would be a 48-minute trip to Anyang, with a short taxi-ride at the other end. It was a little after 6pm, so there wasn’t any danger of missing the 8pm kick-off.
Or so I thought. The slow, crowded march of commuters through SNUE Station and again at Sadang, where the city’s circular line meets Line 4 to take workers and students out to their homes in the surrounding satellite cities of Gyeonggi Province (of which Anyang is one of the biggest), meant I didn’t reach my destination until 7:30pm. Next, it was the drivers for whom public transportation is clearly too inconvenient who were determined to make me miss kick-off, but I finally made it to the stadium just before 8pm. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one whose journey had been slowed by the evening’s commuters as there were further queues at the ticket office. Finally, much later than planned I took a seat in the stadium around 10 minutes after kick-off.
The game was still 0-0 and would remain that way at half-time. The game was entertaining enough to stave off my urge to spend the 35 minutes scrolling through Twitter for the latest on Sir Alex, and both sets of supporters were, as expected, in good voice. Suwon are one of Korea’s best supported sides and can be counted on to bring decent-sized away support to matches in and around Seoul. They made up a good chunk of the reported 11,000+ crowd. For the Anyang supporters who were just happy to have a team to support again, I’m sure having such a big game so early after their return was something of a bonus. On the field, their players were more than holding their own against a side including national team goalkeeper Jung SungRyung, in-form Seo JungJin, and ex-Incheon United striker Dzenan Radoncic (sadly, there was no sign of the People’s Rooney, Jong TeSe). As half-time approached, Anyang were even unlucky not to take when some good build-up play down Anyang’s left ended with a cross that masked forward Kim WonMin put wide.
Having not seen any obvious food sellers on entering the ground, half-time gave me the chance to go in search of some dinner. Ramyeon is the most common of Korean football fare and while it is not usually something I opt for, tonight there was no other option. With my instant noodles dowsed in boiling water and a few cold beers for the second half, I returned to my seat.
10 minutes into the second half, the fans in the Red Zone- the area behind the goal that houses the club’s most vocal support, despite a switch from the red of the Cheetahs to a delightful violet- got the goal they had been waiting for. On the edge of the box, youngster Jeong JaeWoong turned one way, then another and curled a low shot into the bottom corner. Suwon keeper Jung is questioned by many, but I’ve always thought he was decent. Not even I, though, can defend how often and easily he seems to get beaten from distance.
From then Anyang sat back and defended resolutely, but were unable to take any of the few chances they created on the break. Suwon had most of the ball, but created little. Their best chance came when Anyang keeper Jeong MinGyo excellently saved a powerful header. It was to be his final involvement as he was taken away in ambulance. As the clock ran down it seemed certain Anyang were going to take a big-name scalp- and a local rival- at their very first attempt. I was saddened when Suwon did eventually score with two minutes to go thanks to an Anyang own goal, but wasn’t sure if my disappointment was over the result or the delay extra-time and possible penalties would mean to me getting to bed. When Suwon’s Seo JungJin cruelly added a winner three minutes into injury time, I knew it was the former.
Anyang and its supporters had charmed me. The crowd was almost ten thousand more (yes, that’s 10,000 more) than any other tie played in the Third Round, and as large as I can ever remember seeing at a domestic midweek game in Korea. Anyang’s league games have not produced anything like this, but it still seems strange that with such a potentially large supporter base, the city went so long without a team for its people to cheer. Hopefully the next 30 years will bring them happier times.
Highs: Great support for both teams, particularly Anyang, from a large midweek crowd; Goals (I have’t seen many this season)
Lows: Seoul during evening rush-hour; having ramyeon for dinner; Anyang’s disappointing defeat