Pohang is not a city that’s particularly well-known to the world and it’s not a place I’d have likely visited- or maybe even heard of, for that matter- did I not live in South Korea. But Pohang has several international claims to fame. Firstly, it is home to POSCO, one of the world’s largest steel producers and their enormous steel plant situated in the city is also among the world’s biggest. The company has invested heavily there and this medium-sized coastal city now a possesses a globally-renowned university and Asia’s most successful football team.
Pohang Steelers were founded in 1974 as a semi-professional team (then known as POSCO Dolphins and later POSCO Atoms), before entering the K-League in 1984. In the their 30 years as a professional club, they have won five K-League titles, four Korean FA Cups, and are the only team to win the AFC Champions League trophy three times. In 1990, they moved to their current home, the menacingly-monikered Steelyard. Standing within the steel plant, it was Korea’s first football-specific venue and I’d heard from many regular Korean football watchers that it was among the best places to see a game in the country. More importantly- for the purposes of this blog, at least- it was the last of the 12 current K-League Classic stadiums that I hadn’t visited.
This visit was also the first time I was traveling to the game on the official Incheon United Supporters Club bus. A Canadian friend, Dan, who I’ve watched several games with in the last two seasons, is a member and regular traveller and booked me a spot on the bus. The bus was leaving Incheon’s home ground at 7:30am. Being over an hour by subway from my apartment in Seoul, that meant sacrificing Ryan Giggs‘ first game as Mancherster United’s interim-manager because of a 5am start to the day (Man United kicked off at 1:30am Korean time).
At Incheon United, the supporters club go by the name of Meet You Hall Boys (it sounds weird, but Mi-Chu-Hol is an old name for the city of Incheon). Within the group, there are factions of varying size and importance. Dan had told me that his crew, T.N.T. (Terror and Trembling), usually sat at the rear of the coach, so I took a place a few rows from the back seats and hoped I hadn’t sat in some hardcore regular’s favourite spot. As the coach filled, I was greeted with polite smiles and bows, so I assumed I was safe.
We collected a few more fans at Incheon’s old home stadium, including Dan, and by 8am we were on the expressway heading south. The rainy first part of the journey was spent mostly in silence as people tried to catch up on sleep, with the first pit-stop coming just before 10am.
Dan had spoken to me previously about the party atmosphere on the away buses and this bus seemed primed to live up to the reputation: disco lights, karaoke machine, and a steady supply of beer and soju. However, Korea and it’s people are not currently in the mood for partying. The Sewol Ferry Disaster has dominated the national psyche since its sinking on April 16th. On the morning of this game, 11 days after the sinking, there were still more than 100 passengers unaccounted for and close to 200 already confirmed dead . The country’s national sport leagues have continued while other forms of entertainment have been postponed or cancelled. However, there has been no organised singing or entertainment at any sporting events since the sinking and this is looks likely to remain the case for the time being. The on-board TV was carrying the day’s latest news on the tragedy, so the bottles of alcohol were remaining unopened for now.
Just after 1pm, the bus made its way through the Posco steelworks and into the Steelyard’s car park. Tickets were purchased at the standard ₩10,000 (just under £6.00) and the away entrance was conveniently located next to the ticket office. Inside the ground, the TNT boys shared around their food and now felt ready to open the alcohol. Everyone received a generous pour of soju, the country’s national drink and the world’s best-selling spirit. After ten years, I’m still to get a taste for the stuff and this one oversized shot was plenty for me; it would be Hite beers from now on.
Hidden away among some trees, the ground was everything it had been described to me as. This is a real football ground of the kind Korea could do with more if the game is to continue to grow here. It’s showing signs of its 24-years, but it is still a good place to watch football.
And the locals have been treated to plenty of success recently. Last season saw them collect a league and cup double. Going into this weekend, they were again top, while Incheon sat bottom and without a goal in the eight games since the season’s opener. Incheon had not come to sit back, though. They took the game to Pohang in the beginning and looked likely to break their 8-game goal duck. Pohang, however, possess a powerful front-line of Kim SeungDae (the season’s early lead scorer), Lee MyungJoo, Ko MuYeol (two outside bets for South Korea’s World Cup squad), and ex-Incheon United player Kang SooIl. The quartet moved the ball around very quickly and looked very potent on the counter-attack. One such break ended with Lee being tugged back in the box and the referee awarding a softish penalty. Kim GwangSeok scored.
The rest of the first half played out in the same way. Incheon attacked and attacked, but Pohang were more-or-less in control. Lee HyoGun twice had our small band of around 30 travelling supporters cheering, but our position near the corner flag at the opposite end of the ground had betrayed us on both occasions. The first was judged to be offside, while the second ended up in the side-netting.
Half-time: 1-0 to Pohang
The lack of singing made for a strange, but not-at-all silent atmosphere. There was still plenty of clapping, cheering, and booing, just not the constant songs normally heard on match days. As I headed off for half-time beers, I thought I’d found a fellow Welshman, but the gentleman in the Scarlets rugby shirt turned out to be an Antipodean shirt collector.
Incheon again came out attacking, and Nam JunJae headed wide from a six yards early on. Next, came a mad goal-mouth scramble that ended with Pohang’s keeper making a great reflex save and the rebound being fired high and wide. As the game continued, the hurt was becoming clearer on the faces of the travelling fans. It’s still fairly early in the season, but another loss would leave Incheon rooted to the foot of the table and the rest of the season would be all about a relegation battle. Then, with ten minutes to play, Pohang got another penalty. It was more than harsh, the ball striking the rear of Lee YunPyo’s arm while he was sat on the ground. Kwon saved the penalty, but poor defending from the corner saw Pohang go two-nil ahead and the result was no longer in doubt.
‘Just score a goal,’ muttered one fan, looking for something positive to take into the few games that remain before a month-long break for the World Cup. That got more difficult when big Serbian striker Nikolic was sent off for a Nigel de Jong-esque high foot, and then Lee MyungJoo curled in an injury time third for Pohang.
Full Time: Pohang Steelers 3-0 Incheon United
While this had been going on, FC Seoul defeated rivals Suwon Bluewings 1-0 in South Korea’s ‘Super Match,’ a result which left Incheon five points adrift after ten games. Just as worryingly, it’s now 900+ minutes without a league goal. A change in form needs to come sooner rather than later. As the manager departed down the tunnel near our section and the players gave their customary post-game bows, the fans were respectful and still appear to have faith that the current situation can be turned around without any dramatic changes.
The bus headed off back to Incheon, but I was staying in Pohang. I found a bus into the city centre and from there I would walk the 2km or-so the northern beach where I would spend the night. Pohang city centre was much like any other in Korea, but I did find an excellent Japanese noodle place for a late lunch.
The walk to the beach took in the city’s large fishing fleet and gave the first real idea of the size of the steelworks. The long, sandy beach was quiet and pleasant. A walk around the harbour promenade showed the enormous scale of the steel plant, before I found a funky beachfront motel. A google search for ‘bars in Pohang’ brought up TILT Bar and Grill, just behind the seafront motels, and I set off in search of food and hopefully the evening’s Premier League action.
The sun had gone down and the towers and furnaces of the steel plant were now all lit-up to look like some distant theme park. TILT was exactly were their Facebook page said it would be and I was happy to find an extensive choice of beers and enticing menu. It was an interesting couple hours of hours. The polite owner kept referring to me as ‘Sir’; the buffalo chicken sandwich was excellent in taste and value; a well-built member of the local expat Ultimate Frisbee team (at least I think it was ultimate frisbee) took off all his clothes and did a few nude laps of the bar; and, of course, Cardiff City’s relegation was all but sealed with a 4-0 loss at Sunderland, something at least one half of Lost Boyos was sad to see.
America’s Indica beer has become one of my favourites of-late. At TILT, it was very reasonably-priced and it was tempting to stay there for the night’s big Liverpool-Chelsea game. Long sessions of Indica-drinking do not, however, end well, so I decided I’d watch that one on the big TV provided in my motel room. It had been a long, but good day. The TNT guys were very welcoming and generous. Pohang’s Steelyard is a nice stadium and its current team are pretty good to watch. Pohang’s Bukbu Beach and the TILT bar were pleasant places to spend my last Sunday for some time without having to worry about work on Monday. And, it’s taken a long time, but I can now finally say I’ve been to all 12 grounds in Korea’s top-flight.
HIGHS: Travelling with the TNT; Pohang Steelyard (the stadium, not the actual steel yard); completing all 12 K-League Classic grounds; Pohang is a nice place, particularly Bukbu Beach; Indica and buffalo chicken at the TILT Bar and Grill
LOWS: A very early start for my last Sunday off work; seeing Incheon lose and fail to score again; the rain that disrupted my following day’s travel plans.