Things didn’t begin well. After an early morning subway ride across the city, I got to Seoul’s eastern bus terminal and realised I did not have my bank card. Fortunately, Mrs Lost Boyo, my wife Kathryn, was making a rare appearance on this trip, so there was no need to cross back across the city.
We were there to take a bus to visit the Guinsa temple complex. From there I was planning to head to a Korean FA Cup tie in nearby(ish) Chungju, and then the following day a Women’s K-League game in Boeun. We arrived at the temple just before 11am and began the hike through the attractive, hillside complex. After exiting, we ate our packed lunch, nervously hiding the meaty parts away from the monks passing by, and boarded a bus to Chungju.
Chungju’s sporting fame comes mainly from an annual martial arts festival, but the city also hosted the 2013 World Rowing Championships. It is now also home to Chungju Hummel who play in the K-League Challenge (or K2 as most English speakers refer to it). After several years in and around Seoul (Uijeongbu, Nowon and Icheon), Danish sportswear company Hummel brought their team to North Chungcheon Province in 2010. They finished bottom in the inaugural K2 last season, but with just three games played in 2014 they find themselves unbeaten and in the promotion play-offs.
Kathryn and I wandered the martial arts park and the lake, then she got the bus back to Seoul. That was the signal for the first beer of the day and I was happy to find that the ‘Everyday Beer Discount’ on import beers offered by a national chain of corner shops had extended out to the provinces. The sun was starting to set as I downed my my cold Japanese lager, before making the 15-minute walk to the stadium.
Ajou University were Hummel’s opponents for this FA Cup second round tie. The university has a good football history and produced 2002 World Cup hero Ahn Junghwan. They had beaten Chunnam Youngkwang of the Challenger’s League (which is not the same as the K-League Challenge, but in theory two leagues below – confused?), while this was the first round for Hummel. Although it’s not unusual to see university teams do well in the FA Cup, the students began as underdogs. I had decided to cheer for the home side on the basis of their presumably apple-inspired (Chungju is famous for its apples) green and red strip.
After purchasing more discount Japanese lager, I made my way into the stadium. The 15,000-capacity ground was like most other provincial Korean stadiums; an open concrete bowl, running track, and largely empty. I sat in the one covered stand which was also the part with actual seats, the rest just being concrete steps. Some ten minutes into the game, Hummel’s Han Honggyu beat the offside and finished powerfully from a tight angle. Ajou equalised near the half hour mark with their #9 sliding in a rebound following the Chungju keeper’s parry.
At half-time, I switched to the other end of the ground to sit among the home support that probably numbered around 200. Behind the goal to the right were two seemingly rival supporter factions each of around ten people and complete with the usual drums, flags and banners (including the prophetic ‘iacta alea est‘ – the die has been cast).
I had not considered the possibility of extra-time and penalties when buying my beer, so I was happy when Hummel regained the lead with Kim Sungmin finishing after Hong’s flick. However, Ajou levelled again with their #7 finishing after some neat football on the left wing. That meant a dry extra-time, but that was offset by the potential excitement of a penalty shoot-out. Ajou seemed happy to play for spot kicks, while Chungju just launched long balls at their hulking substitute Yoo Junghyun.
Ajou’s willingness to accept the lottery of penalties looked a sensible one as they converted their first four penalties. Chungju, however, were only successful with 50% of their spot-kicks- the third was saved, the fourth sent wide- and the students had pulled off one of the upsets of the round. Celebrations were, however, muted and respectful, which was a pleasant way to end the game.
Now it was time to find somewhere to sleep. Korea’s love motels often get a bad reputation internationally- particularly since the F1 crowd showed up in 2010– but I’ve not had too many bad experiences with them. Chungju’s motels were centred mostly around the local train station and I ended up with a very nice, clean room- big TV, robes, chaisse longue- for a reasonable enough 40,000won (just over £20).
Overnight, I had a change of heart. With just the cash lent to me by Kathryn, I was unable to shake the fear of being pennilessly stranded in the countryside and another day of buses and temples had become less appealing. There was a full round of WK-League fixtures and after a quick check online, my suspicions that one game was taking place in Daejeon were confirmed.
After checking out of the motel (i.e. leaving the key in basket in the lift), it was back to the bus station and by 11:30 I had crossed the border into South Chungcheon Province and arrived in Daejeon. Being back in the big city, the first port of call was Lost Boyos favourite Seattle-based coffee chain to get my bearings and plan the day ahead.
Daejeon is currently home to three football teams. Daejeon Citizen were among the three teams to be relegated from the K-League last season and now find themselves in the K2 with Hummel. The newest arrivals are Daejeon Korail. Korail, like Hummel, chose to move their team south from Incheon at the end of last season and they are currently in the National League (K3). Korail share the city’s second stadium, Hanbat Stadium, with the team I was in town to view: Daejeon Sports Toto (Sports Toto being Korea’s equivalent to the pools). They play, as you’ve probably guessed by now, in the WK-League.
After a day lazily wandering around Daejeon- the art musem, the science park, various pleasant riverside walks- the floodlights of the Hanbat finally came into view with around two and a half hours to kick off. It had been a warm day and the sun was high in the hazy sky, so I decided on a bath before the game. Korea’s public baths are excellent and I found one close to the stadium. It was a small and friendly bathhouse and after a quick joke at the foreign newcomer’s expense, I was allowed to bathe and sauna in peace.
Cleansed and ready, I popped to the corner shop next door and enjoyed my first pre-game beer. I bought one more (I was saving further beer privileges for the train back to Seoul), a Queen’s Ale, for the stadium. This new addition to the Korean beer market is far better than the rest of the country’s locally-produced brews and made for an enjoyable drink in the beer garden the WK-League had seemingly provided.
This was my first ever women’s football game. My interest in the women’s game is a recent thing which comes mainly from learning about the career of Jessica Fishlock (who has achieved even more since we spoke to her a year ago). As she is now also leading a successful Welsh team, it seems as good a time as any to jump aboard this particular bandwagon.
The game began unusually and ended more bizarrely still. Daejeon’s opposition were Seoul Amazones and from kick-off their striker Park Eun-Seon shot directly for goal. The WK-League came under international scrutiny at the end of last season when the league’s other coaches called Park’s gender into question and even threatened a boycott if she was allowed to continue playing. She was, but the other teams obviously did not go through with their threat. She looked the most dangerous player in the early exchanges, but it was her teammate who put Seoul ahead with a strike from distance.
Daejeon equalized with a well-finished shot from the edge of the box that delighted their small band of hardcore supporters (made up of two young men with an array of chants and excellent drum skills, another man with a camera, an older man with a funny, and a young woman). A sixth, wanting to practice his English, later revealed himself to me.
When I tell people I’m from Wales, particularly at football games, the next response is usually a good indicator of how long the conversation will continue. Blank stares are common, but the commonest verbal answer is ‘Ryan Giggs,’ who everyone knows as Park Ji-Sung’s ex-teammate. My new friend exclaimed, “Craig Bellamy.” This answer generally proceeds an extended conversation, and ours was to cover Liverpool’s title chances (he is a fan, hence Bellamy), the K-League and even his views on the A-League following a recent trip Down Under. He was a WK-League regular, describing the league as ‘beautiful,’ and was there to see his favourite player, Daejeon’s captain.
After an interesting start, the first half petered out with a series of long balls and niggly fouls. The excitement returned at the start of the first half with Daejeon taking the lead from a great lob in the first minute. The fouling, however, continued and just before the hour one of the Seoul players went down injured. Daejeon played on, but Seoul dealt with their attack. Daejeon played on again and eventually shot wide. Seoul’s manager had seen enough and ordered his team off, furious with the referee’s decision not to intervene while his player was down. Seoul’s captain, their goalkeeper, led her teammates across the track to their changing at the far end of the stadium.
The small hardcore group began shouting at Seoul’s manager and there were other cries from the busier sections where I was sat. The Daejeon players grabbed some balls and kept themselves warm on the field. A few minutes passed before the Amazones re-emerged from their dressing room, but they were now in their tracksuits and heading for their bus. As they disappeared through the exit just below my seats, the referee blew up and the Daejeon players celebrated victory (which was later recorded as a 3-0 forfeit).
My only other visit to watch football in Daejeon had been a strange one (days earlier Incheon United’s goalkeeper had committed suicide and the fans all wore black and celebrated neither the goals nor the 2-1 victory), but I’ve never seen anything that compares to this. There was a mixture of complete bewilderment and amusement among the 200-or so in the stadium, and soon we were all heading home. Seoul’s bus had already left by the time I’d exited, but the extra time meant I had time to walk back to the train station.
It was nice to get out of Seoul for a few days, and the trip means I’d now seen a game in all of Korea’s football competitions. Although the games had only provided quality in patches, I certainly couldn’t feel cheated for their dramatic finishes.
Highs: Nice countryside, two free games of football, a cup upset, a penalty shoot, my first ever walk-off.
Lows: Lots of bus journeys, my first ever walk-off.