South Korea’s National League Cup is becoming one of my favourite football tournaments. This year’s competition had the National League’s ten teams battle it out over two weeks in a group stage and straight knock-out. For finalists that meant six matches in 14 days. Now, even at its highest levels, Korean football does not have the intensity of its most famous European cousins, but when you also factor in that these games are being played in late afternoon temperatures of around 25 and June’s early summer humidity, I think we can all agree that we’re talking about a pretty grueling schedule.
This year’s tournament, just as last year’s had done, took place in the northern town of Yanggu. In 2012, I was lucky enough to take in two matches in the tournament’s opening day. For the 2013 edition, my holiday coincided with the events climax between Incheon Korail and Cheonan City.
The town of Yanggu lies in the north of South Korea’s Gangwon Province. It’s location so close to North Korea means the town is home to a not insignificant number of young men completing their two-year military service and, indeed my journey to the town included many sightings of military vehicles and barracks. There was also some beautiful countryside, although patience was not a virtue possessed by my bus driver (or any Korean bus driver for that matter*) and his negotiation of Gangwon’s windy mountain roads meant I was concentrating as much on not vomiting as admiring the rural landscape.
Eventually, two and-a-bit hours after leaving Seoul eastern bus terminal, I arrived in Yanggu. For this week’s pre-game cultural activity, I headed to the Park SooKeun Museum. Park, an artist and the town’s most famous son, museum is on the edge of town and I chose to make the journey on foot to allow my stomach to settle.
As the cliche goes, I don’t know art, but I know what I like, and there’s something about the humility of Park’s work that I find charming. On my last visit I purchased a copy of a simple pencil-drawn cow (although that may have been inspired by Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s excellent Into the Arena, which I was reading at the time) called, well, ‘Cow.’ This time around, I left the museum gift shop empty-handed and headed back to the town hoping to repeat the find of another memento of that trip.
Among the town’s many outdoor sports wear shops I found a replica of a 1980s Soviet Union away shirt. The lady even gave me a discount because this was a slight stain (I can’t remember exactly how little I paid). The shop, sadly, had disappeared. When I got there, the doors were locked and the shop was bare. Next stop was Korea’s best deep-fried poultry seller for a box of their finest boneless chicken to take to the game.
The crowd of several hundred was way above what I’d expected for an afternoon kick-off in a largely insignificant competition among teams in the country’s third tier. This was largely due to Korail, the national railway organisation and owner/sponsor of the Incheon side, using its sway to (ironically) bus in a load of company men and women cheer on their boys.
Incheon were favourites, sitting joint-top in the N-League, while Cheonan were down in ninth (of the ten-team division). Korail had also won the sides’ only league meeting so far. To reach the final . Incheon their semi, while Cheonan required penalties to defeat, both those games having been played just two days before the final.
Incheon lived up to the favourites tag by racing into a two-goal lead within the opening 20 minutes. There was a large element of fortune about their opener as a shot that looked to be heading toward Cheonan’s keeper deflected in off another Korail player leaving the keeper stranded. The second, however, was a rocket. After a short lay-off on the edge of the box, Korail’s onrushing hammered the ball first-time into the top corner. Cheonan had one decent headed chance from a free-kick, but rarely threatened in open play as the half ended 2-0.
It looked like things were about to be tied up five minutes into the second half, but a tame Korail shot came back off both posts. A minute later, though, it was effectively all over when another superb long range effort found its way to the top corner. As the hour approached, a third spectacular long-range strike, this one similar to the first, but from further out, ended doubt whatsoever that the trophy was heading to Incheon. With about 15 minutes remaining, Cheonan created their best chance of the game, but the opportunity was wasted with the shot going straight at the Incheon keeper. A minute later came an icing-on-the-cake fifth for Korail, as their #8 and captain burst from midfield, shaped to shoot from distance, but instead slipped in a teammate to slot into the bottom corner.
Ten minutes or so later and the game was over. Korail had been utterly dominant and shown some really superb finishing. After the final whistle, while the exhausted and dejected Cheonan players made their escapes, family, friends, fan, and even a lone foreign football blogger were free to mingle without disruption or suspicion among the players as they celebrated. I was happy to get a closer look at Korail’s shirts, which are real throwback to the best (or worst depending on your taste) of the mid-90s colourfully patterned jerseys. The goalkeeper shirts were particularly standout-ish.
South Korea is a country dominated by cities, and one- Seoul- above all others. The opportunities that football-watching has given me to get out and visit some of the lesser-known cities and smaller towns have been very enjoyable, and when I eventually bid farewell to this South Korea, I’ll look back with particular fondness on my trips to Yanggu. And this time I even got to see an Incheon team win some silverware. It’s just a shame it was the wrong one.
HIGHS: Great weather; great town; great chicken; great goals; great kits. Just great!
LOWS: None really, perhaps the final was too one-sided, but as a neutral I’m quite to see one team dominate another, even if it’s a final, when it’s done in the manner Korail did it.
*I may have been harsh here. The driver for my return to Seoul was cautious enough that I was able to write most of this post on the bus without feeling nauseous.