November 12th, 2004- exactly ten years ago today- was the first time I entered South Korea. I left in August this year and had hoped to produce some kind of retrospective on my football-watching journeys at that time, but the chores of an international move got in the way. Finally, though, on this semi-landmark (at best) date, here are my ten (actually 11) most memorable matches from the nearly eight years I spent in South Korea.
#1 South Korea 3-1 Germany
Asiad World Cup Stadium, Busan – International friendly – Dec 2004
This was my first game in Korea. My friend John alerted me to it and he was very keen to attend, even though it was several hundred miles away in the southern city of Busan. So keen was he, in fact, that he purchased four tickets, confident he would be able to shift them for the visit of such a serious footballing power. I took one and the night before the game, he thought he’d not only sold the tickets, but also got us a lift down south. As the party we were attending went on, it soon become clear that our would-be driver was not going to be in a any fit state for a 300+ mile drive the next day, so John and I headed into Seoul for a lunch-time, high-speed KTX train.
The game was a repeat of the World Cup semi-final of 18 months prior, but the teams were quite different. Germany were rebuilding under Jurgen Klinsmann, whose task was to avoid embarrassment in the upcoming home World Cup and lay a foundation for future success. The German team that day featured Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack, as well as 2014 World Cup winners Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose (Lukas Podolski also came on and Per Mertesacker was an unused substitute).
Korea were looking for new stars to carry forward the work of the 2002 squad and were without all their Europea-based players, apart from Cha DuRi. The Taeguk Warriors, however, overcame the visitors with goals from future Middlesborough flop Lee DongKuk, Kim DongJin and Cho JaeJin. For the Germans, Michael Ballack scored a free-kick, but missed a penalty.
Our late rush down meant we had no plans for our return journey, which was not a good situation to be in on the opposite end of the the country on a Sunday night and with work on Monday morning. However, we were just about lucky enough to get the last bus to Seoul and the adventures had began.
#2 Suwon Samsung Bluewings 3-0 Incheon United
Suwon World Cup Stadium – K-League Cup – March 2005
By spring, John and I had decided to follow our ‘hometown’ team, Incheon United. We’d bought our replica shirts and got free season tickets as part of the deal (this was only the club’s second season and they were still trying to build a fanbase).
The trip to Suwon was our first away trip and as it fell near my birthday we travelled in a largish group. Suwon would eventually win the pre-season K-League Cup- before performing poorly in the league proper- and they blew Incheon United away on the day. Nadson was the star and he scored a free-kick.
Suwon’s Big Bird Stadium was probably my favourite stadium in Korea. While I never had any affection for the team that played there, their fans always created a great atmosphere.
#3 FC Seoul 4-2 Pohang Steelers
Seoul World Cup Stadium – K-League – 2005
Park JiSung was the undoubted star of Korean football during my time in the country, but, although he played for my team, my personal favourite was another Park: Park ChuYoung.
His Premier League career may have resulted in just a brief substitute appearance in a defeat to Manchester United, but in 2005 he was one of the biggest young stars in Asia. 2005 was his first season as a professional after winning Asian Young Footballer of the Year in 2004.
He lived up to the hype with 12 goals in 19 league games- enough to finish as the league’s second highest scorer. Three of the goals came in this virtuoso display that I’d dragged my girlfriend (now wife) and a female Canadian friend to, convincing them they were coming to see Korea’s next Europe-bound star. That didn’t happen for a few years, but he got there in the end. One of my final footballing mementos from Korea is 2014 World Cup shirt with Park’s name and number.
#4 Incheon United 1-5 Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i
Munhak World Cup Stadium, Incheon – K-League Championship Final – November 2005
Incheon United exceeded all expectations in their second season of existence. The K-League worked on a sort of apertura/clausura format, with both winners and the two best performing teams overall entering the championship play-offs. Incheon achieved the best overall record- and so were moral champions, at least- then won away at Ian Porterfield’s Busan to reach the two-legged final.
I remember the final being a very cold day, but that didn’t stop several fans- including some North Americans from the large group of foreign fans that had grown during the season- going shirtless for at least part of the game. For fans in the Incheon end, the start of the game is something of a blue blur as a variety of blue flares and smoke bombs were set off- and perhaps it would have been better if that smoke never cleared.
It was 2-0 at half-time and three a minute into the second half. The dream was over. Lee ChunSoo scored a hat-trick in his hometown and when Dzenan Radoncic finally put Incheon on the scoresheet in the 89th minute, they were five goals behind.
Incheon won the away leg, but they were never realistically going to turn over a four-goal deficit and it was a sad end to a great season. The team was broken up over the next couple of seasons- many of the players winning trophies at other clubs- and years of mid-table obscurity loomed.
#5 Germany 4-1 England
Goyang Stadium – FIFA U17 World Cup, Quarter final – Aug 2007
“I liked him before he was famous.” I can only really say this about one player, but what a player he is. Brazil were talked up before the tournament- with twins Rafael and Fabio in their squad- and Stoke’s Bojan Krkic was expected to live up to his billing as the next Messi. In the end, the undoubted star of the tournament was Toni Kroos.
In this game, he took England- for whom Danny Welbeck made a substitute appearance- apart, scoring a late fourth goal. Kroos scored again in the semi-final defeat to eventual champions Nigeria, then scored and assisted against Ghana to seal third place. He finished with five goals and the Player of the Tournament award and is (so far) the only member of that squad to go on and play for the World Champions.
#6 FC Seoul 1-1 Suwon Samsung Bluewings Suwon / Samsung Bluewings 2-1
FC Seoul Seoul World Cup Stadium/Suwon World Cup Stadium – K-League Championship Final – Dec 2008
Okay, I’m cheating a little as this was actually two games. They may not be the most successful, but these are the two biggest teams in South Korea and their matches regularly attract 40,000+ spectators, huge crowds by K-League standards. These meetings would decide that season’s Champions.
In the home leg, Adi- a Brazilian stalwart who I met some years later and chatted about these two games with; a thoroughly nice fella- headed Seoul ahead from a corner, but Kwak HeeJu did the same for Suwon to equalise in the second-half.
The second-leg, played on Dec 7th was bitterly cold. My Canadian friend Andrew and I sat in the uncovered away end while snow fell for the majority of the game. Edu, who went to score UEFA Champions League goals for Schalke on their 2011-run to the semi-finals, scored a penalty for Suwon. Jung JoGook did the same for Seoul, before Song ChongGug, a 2002 World Cup star and ex-Feyenoord player, scored before half-time to seal a fourth K-League title for Suwon.
#7 Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 0-1 HSV
Suwon World Cup Stadium – Peace Cup Final – July 2012 Peace Cup Final
The Peace Cup was the play thing of Reverend Moon SunMyung, he of The Moonies. His football foundation held five tournaments over the nine years between 2003 and 2012, four in South Korea and one in Spain. The five winners were PSV, Spurs, Lyon, Aston Villa, and Hamburg, but Juventus, Madrid, River Plate and Boca Juniors and many others all took part at various points.
The 2012 edition featured HSV, Sunderland, Groningen and Moon’s own Seongnam. On the finals day, Sunderland defeated Groningen to take third. The Wearsiders had brought a good crowd considering it was a pre-season tournament on the other side of world. I went with a large group of friends and sat in their ‘end.’ Once they noticed my shiny, new Manchester United jersey they, with the wounds of ‘Agueroooo’ still fresh, proceeded to give me the Poznan.
I was cheering for the Germans in the final, having lived near Hamburg for a few months and we switched to their ‘end’ of the ground. Hamburg won following a Marcus Berg goal. Reverend Moon died a little over a month after the final and his church eventually withdrew its support for Seognam and for the Peace Cup. This final tournament had been a fitting end, though, with undoubtedly the most overly-dramatic closing ceremony ever witnessed at any football tournament. Ever.
Seoul Olympic Stadium – East Asian Cup – August 2013
Many outsiders will think that South Korea’s biggest rivals are their northern neighbours. The two Koreas met on several occasions during my time on the ‘technically still at war’ peninsula, but the games were usually used to encourage peace and unity and often ended in draws.
No, Korea’s biggest rival- football, or otherwise- is Japan. The countries have centuries of warring history and it was only at the end of World War II that Japan’s 35-year colonial rule ended. The East Asian Cup is not a major trophy and its timing meant all four squads- Australia and China were also involved- featured only domestic-, or at least Asian-based players. The Australia-China game earlier in the day was a 4-3 thriller, and that result Korea meant had to win to take the trophy.
Legendary player and captain Hong MyungBo was now in charge of South Korea and there was a lot of expectation on him following the Olympic-bronze medal he had led his team to a year earlier, but his tenure had began with two 0-0 draws. Yoichiro Kakitani scored first for Japan, but Yun IlRok equalised with a great curling effort. The game was cagey and the atmosphere hostile, at least until all the main Korean fans’ section removed all their banners after being told to take down some of the more offensive ones. However, Kakitani scored again late to win the game and the trophy for Zaccheroni’s Japan.
Hanbat Stadium, Daejeon – WK-League – April 2014
Quite frankly the most bizarre game I’ve seen anywhere. It was my first, and so far only, women’s game. It had been an enjoyable hour of football before Seoul’s manager called his team off the field- in a full league fixture. The women disappeared off to their dressing room, but when they returned, they headed straight for their bus and back to the capital. Seoul were 2-1 down at the time, but these antics meant the result was given to Daejeon as a 3-0 win.
#10 FC Seoul 5-1 Incheon United
Seoul World Cup Stadium – K-League Classic – August 2014
FC Seoul was always the first of Incheon United’s fixtures I looked for, and I knew this fixture was going to be among the last I’d see before leaving. Despite being another 5-1 defeat for the team I’d followed for nine years, it makes the list over other memorable encounters because it turned out to be the very last (at least for now).
Two friends, Harry and Paul, accompanied me to the game and it was a first K-League game for one of them. I’d encouraged many people to come along to their first K-League games and they often ended in drab, low-scoring affairs. This game had six goals, several of very high quality, and a great atmosphere in the away end, despite the collapse being witnessed on the field.
It was sad to go out on a loss, but the game had much of what had made the K-League so enjoyable over the nearly nine years I had spent following it.