FC Seoul vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Seoul World Cup Stadium, AFC Champions League semi-final 2nd leg, October 19, 2016
There are two posts that remain in the drafts section of this blog that I sometimes regret never finishing. The first is a look at John Toshack’s many years managing overseas, while the other is Lost in… Seoul. The latter was to be the tale of my final weeks before leaving the South Korean capital in 2014; hanging out for a night with FC Seoul legend Adilson, staying out all night to watch South Korea play a World Cup fixture with the masses on a giant screen, finally getting to see Seoul Martyrs play, and, in my last game, standing in the away end as FC Seoul pummelled Incheon United 5-1. Alas, two international moves in quick succession meant it never got finished.
Quarterly football magazine The Blizzard held a competition last year to write a John Toshack biography with the man himself, so I’ll leave that to them now. My ode to the Seoul, thankfully, looked set to be given a new lease of life if I could only find a game to attend.
FC Seoul were at home on the Saturday I returned, but I wasn’t going to miss catching up with old teammates and ending my self-imposed semi-retirement from playing. Seoul E-Land, a team that didn’t even exist when I was last in Seoul, had an away fixture in the K-League Challenge. The Vietnamese national team were in town, but times and venues were unconfirmed as I planned my trip. Most frustratingly of all, the all-Korean AFC Champions League semifinal in midweek was due to finish at the almost exactly the same time as my return to Hanoi would be taking off.
However, my employer made me aware I had an extra day of leave and after much back and forth with Jeju Air, my flight was put back a day. I had my match. Game day would still be the last in Seoul for my wife and our travelling companion, so first there was tourism to be done.
The meeting of old and new is a popular theme used to raise the Seoul’s global appeal. We headed to Dongdaemun, where the ancient and modern certainly mix. The ladies went for a stroll around the old fabric markets while I headed for the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza. The Zaha Hadid-designed building is located on the site of the old Dongdaemun Stadium. I was happy that the old floodlights remain a part of the complex, but less happy that the Official K-League just around the corner seems to has become little more than extra storage space for the Adidas store below.
After lunch and some temple-gazing, the ladies departed for the airport, while I headed to Itaewon to meet Mark and Sean from Sunday’s game in Seongnam for beer at Itaewon’s excellent Pizza Peel. After the awfulness of Seongnam vs Incheon, we were hyping this one up as we ate.
And there was much to hype. These have been the two best South Korean teams in recent years and with Jeonbuk leading 4-1 from the first leg, Seoul would definitely be going out to attack. Both teams and managers had plenty of Champions League experience. Jeonbuk manager Choi KangHee led his side to the title in 2006, while Seoul’s Hwang SunHong had won it as a player with Pohang Steelers. Jeonbuk’s Kim ShinWook and Seoul’s Kwak TaeHwi were both ACL winners with previous teams and both squads had players who picked up runners-up in 2011 (Jeonbuk) and 2013 (Seoul).
But it was a tough game for neutrals to pick sides. FC Seoul have never been especially popular outside their own support. For some it’s their history, but for many it’s just that they are the capital club and, at times, have enjoyed periods of success. Jeonbuk have dominated the K-League in the last two seasons, but were recently found guilty of bribing referees to influence matches (oddly enough, during a period when they were less dominant).
Despite being Incheon United’s geographical rivals, I’ve always had a soft spot for FC Seoul. Park ChuYoung, who began his career there and has now returned, was probably the first reason, but lots of other of my favourite K-League players have played at the Seoul World Cup Stadium. Quite a few, like Choi HyoJin, Kim ChiWoo, or Dejan Damjanovic have actually come- directly or indirectly- via Incheon United. Throw in the underdog factor and for the second time in a week, I was going in the home end of one of Incheon’s rivals.
Kim and Dejan would both start this game, as well as two other ex-Incheon United players. With at least three goals required, it was no surprise that coach Hwang was going all out, picking Park ChuYoung and Adriano alongside the Montenegrin striker. The trio had 58 goals between them and FC Seoul would be hoping that total getting added to.
In fact, the home fans had other ideas for eliminating Jeonbuk. At kick-off, a large banner was unfurled from the upper tier quoting the AFC’s Article 73.6. There have been mutterings that Jeonbuk’s illegal payments could see them removed from the Champions League, but it seems unlikely at this stage. Others, too, have perceived Jeonbuk’s punishment as being too lenient. Banners from fans of other teams also appeared in the stands calling for harsher punishment.
On the field, FC Seoul came out of the blocks quickly. Adriano had three decent chances and Dejan had an effort on the turn comfortably saved by Kwon SunTae. Jeonbuk looked a little nervous, but occasionally threatened on the break and Yoo Hyun did make one smart save. Seoul eventually got the goal they needed. Kim ChiWoo got to the byline and his cutback was tapped in by Adriano. It was his thirteenth in the competition this season.
Mark had opted for the away end, but Sean was singing along with the home fans next to me. He wanted an early night in order to get up in the early hours and watch Celtic in the UEFA Champions League. Even after turning down a beer in exchange, he was still kind enough to share his very tasty Ben’s Cookies with me during the break.
The second half began with a chance for Seoul, and they really should have doubled their lead and set things up for a brilliant second half. A mistake in the Jeonbuk defence put Ju SeJong through one-on-one against a hastily back-pedalling Kwon. The chip was on, but Ju held back and eventually passed to Park. The chance had gone and Park’s effort was deflected wide. This seemed to shock Jeonbuk into tightening things up and veteran Lee DongGook, the ACL’s record goalscorer, was sent on to add a calm head.
On the hour, the Brazilian Lopes burst past Kim ChiWoo and fired under Yoo Hyun to draw Jeonbuk level on the night and effectively kill the tie. Nobody was more convinced of this than Jeonbuk’s Kim ShinWook, the striker dancing around gesturing that the game was done. I feel Kim often gets a rough deal, with people focusing on his physique rather his ability, but this behaviour along with his continual complaining and time wasting in this game isn’t going to help him change people’s opinions.
Seoul still attacked, but the pace of the game eased off after the equaliser. A defender was withdrawn for a fourth attacker, Yun IlRok. He was the K-League’s bright young thing when I was last here, but he wasn’t able to open up Jeonbuk, either. The final throw of the dice was to introduce the 1m97cm Sim WooYeon in place of Park, who had been poor. Drifting into wide and deep positions, he had little impact on the game.
The hosts did regain the lead very late on when Ko KwangMin rifled a low drive into the bottom corner and maybe if Yun’s shot from twenty yards hadn’t been saved by Kwon moments later, we would have had a nail-biting finish. As it was, injury-time fizzled out and Jeonbuk had booked their place in the final.
Jeonbuk were worthy victors over the two legs and their fans were great on the night. Korean clubs aren’t known for their travelling support, particularly for midweek fixtures, but Jeonbuk’s Mad Green Boys had come up to the capital in large numbers. Their team are probably favourites to claim the title, but it will be interesting to see if they are permitted to return next season.
Overall, however, the crowd was disappointingly small given the occasion. At just under 15,000 the Seoul World Cup Stadium was only around a quarter full. FC Seoul’s league average is around 5,000 more and those stayed away had missed a good game, certainly up there with the best I’ve witnessed in 2016.
Full-time: FC Seoul 2-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (3-5 on aggregate)
The GS25 convenience store at the top of the World Cup Stadium subway station is the usual meeting point to pick up a post-game beer and dissect the action. Once Mark had concluded his podcast duties, we set off for some chimaek (chicken and beer) in nearby Gongdeok. Sean departed, but we were joined by Alistair. Neither local beer Cass nor local spirit soju feature highly on my list of favourite drinks, but the chicken and the company were excellent. Once Mark left, Alistair and I talked over more than an decade of K-League-watching and it turned out we’d been to many of the same games, albeit never together. It was a fitting end to what had already been a fairly nostalgic few days.
I’m often asked whether I miss Seoul or whether it’s a good place to visit or live. The answer is always yes, but I struggle when I’m pressed for reasons. There’s the football, of course, but I’ll usually babble on about convenience or safety or something else that leaves my questioner looking unconvinced. It’s something even the Seoul Government seems to struggle with as their latest slogan to sell the city to the wider world is I.Seoul.U. But what looks like nonsense is also open to widely different interpretations. I may not yet be able to articulate mine, so I’ll just say that I Seoul you, too.
GOOD: great game and occasion, very vocal support for both teams, chicken and beer, Seoul
BAD: Park ChuYoung’s decline, Kim ShinWook’s actics, slightly disappointing crowd