Thursday, August 7, 2008

League Focus - K-League

I have to admit since coming back to Ukraine I've neglected the K-League, which I followed in Korea for 2 years. During the time there I made it to most FC Seoul matches and also managed to visit Seongnam and Daejon for games.

The K-League is one of the most succesful leagues in Asia, relying on a steady flow of Korean players and Europeans. However, unlike some leagues the foreigners that are signed, for example Riccardo, who played for FC Seoul while I was there still seem to have a hunger for the game.

Watching football in Korea is a much different experience to watching it in Europe. It's a bit of a family and popcorn event, although it's pretty easy to get beer in the stadium. There are also a lot of freebies on offer. For example, they often give ballooons and sweets to kids and programmes are free. I also have a badge to commemorate the game between FC Seoul and Suwon on 21 March 2007. Not a bad souvenir as FC Seoul beat their hated and more successful neighbours 4-1 on this occassion.

An organised league is relatively new to Korea. The korean Super League was founded in 1983 with just 5 teams; Hallelujah (who as you would expect are a very devout bunch and now ply their trade in the National League, where they have a group prayer on the pitch before the match), Daewoo, POSCO, Yukong Elephants and Kookmin Bank. In the inaugral year Hallekujah must have found some divine intervention as they managed to win the League.

In 1994 the K-League was reformed with 14 teams, as it remains today. Kookmin Bank and Hallelujah soon dropped out, although the latter have come close on a few occassions to making a return to the K-League. Most of the teams are owned by big corporations, or Chaebols, as they are known in that part of the World. This is evident in the names of such teams as Busan I'Park, Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Ulsan Hyundai. Other clubs, such as Incheon United, who are the best supported team in the League, are owned by the local council and Korea's most succesful team,Seongnam Ilwah are owned by the Reverend Moon of Moonies fame. In fact their ground, which to be honest has a fantastic atmosphere, also has a massive church just behind it. They also host the bi-annual Peace Cup, which brings together clubs from Europe, Asia and South America. The final and bigger games though tend to be played at the World Cup Stadium in Seoul, the home of FC Seoul. For example Reading played there last year and the final between Lyon and Bolton was also held at Seoul's home ground.

FC Seoul were the team that I followed when I was in Seoul. In fact if you look at my profile picture you can see me in the away shirt on the left. This photo was taken at the League Cup Final, which Seoul lost to Ulsan in, unfortunately. FC Seoul, however have caused their fair share of controversy in the past. They are owned by one of the Chaebols, LG. In 2003 they broke up the LG Cheetahs who played in a satellite town of Seoul and shipped them off to the World Cup Stadium, which didn't have a team and FC Seoul were born. Jeju United were formed in a similar incident of franchise football in 2005.

One thing to remember is that supporting a club in Korea is a very different experience to following a club in Europe. There is all the chanting and choreography, you'd expect but on a positive note it lacks any nastiness, maybe because there are alot more women spectators (although when FC Seoul play Incheon United there is often a good old fashioned punch up). On the negative side it sometimes lacks the passion you feel in Europe. Obviously, there is an element of rent-a fan as the big companies sometimes tell their employees to go and support the team. For example Suwon are owned by Samsung and most people in the town are employed by them. Reading and Bolton also had 'fans' in the Peace Cup who were obviously just people who had been provided with drums and bits of rubber to bang together in the clubs' colours in order to create an atmosphere. Another problem is obviously caused by the franchise way of running things and the fact that the clubs have very little history. The atmosphere can also sometimes be stilted in that clubs like FC Seoul, whose attendance can be anything from 4,000 to 65,000 depending on what day it is and what the weather is like play in huge stadiums that were built for the 2002 World Cup. There is also a play off system with the top 6 teams going into the play offs when the season finishes in November, which can't be good for the game.

That said the fans are friendly and several clubs regularly get in excess of 20,000 and it's easy to drink beer and even soju in the ground.

At the time of writing the top 3 has a familiar feel with Suwon leading Seongnam and Seoul at the top.

Below the K-League is the National League, which the top team are allowed to gain promotion from if they have the resources and willingness to go up.

Note on the pictures from top to bottom:
1. K-League emblem
2. Picture I took at Fc Seoul V Suwon on 8th April 2007. during this match there were 68,000 spectators, a record for the K-League
3. Suwon bage
4. Seongnam badge
5. FC Seoul badge

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