The K-League has kicked off and the long season ahead promises to be one of the greatest in its history. Korean football and indeed football in general is fast-growing in popularity again in Korea shown by the fantastic attendances we have seen so far (and will get into below).
Defending champions Jeonbuk are looking even better than the team which amassed a record-breaking Championship points tally last season and, while only two games have been played, clear patterns are emerging. There’s great news for some fans and disappointment for others.
1. Jeonbuk are showing no sign of second season nerves
Jeonbuk cruised to last year’s K-League title with a record points tally in a league which is notoriously competitive. Winning a title is one thing, but dealing with the pressure to win it again is a rare feat for any league in the world. Kang-Hee Choi, the legendary Korean coach who failed to deliver when Head Coach of the national team, has turned this Jeonbuk side into a force to be reckoned with and in doing so restored his proud reputation.
In addition to the impressive signing of Edu, a Brazilian who has succeeded in the K-League before, Jeonbuk have previously injured Lee Dong-Gook back and fit. The legendary Korean forward is pretty much as close as it comes to a goal scoring vending machine. His two goals in the week against Vietnam’s Becamex Binh Duong showed that despite his age, he will look to cause misery to K-League defences in the coming weeks. Two convincing wins against FC Seoul and Seongnam have shown that they will be the team to beat once again.
2. Ulsan are once again a force to be reckoned with
With six points from two games on the back of six goals, it has been a scintillating start for Yoon Jung-Hwan’s men. New signings, especially the talismanic former Asian Player of the Year Server Djeparov, have added quality and creativity to last season’s most inconsistent performers. The Hyundai-backed Ulsan have money to spend, and in Jung-Hwan they have found the perfect manager to bring back the glory days of a side who, lest we forget in light of last season’s disastrous campaign, won the Asian Champions League just three years ago.
Jung-Hwan is a highly-rated young coach emphasising counter-attacking football, and he has enough talent at his disposal to mount a strong title challenge this season.
3. Misery ahead for FC Seoul unless they can find a goalscorer
FC Seoul, one of Asian football’s giants, have looked nothing short of desperate this season. With two comprehensive league defeats and a shaky ACL start, they’ve been short on goals after losing last season’s leading striker Sergio Escudero. To make matters worse, they travel to a resurgent Pohang side this weekend and it would surprise no one if they were to make it a third consecutive loss. By announcing the signing of former Arsenal striker Park Chu-Young, FC Seoul fans will hope for a quick return for form and goals, something which Park has not shown in years. Such a risky move highlights the dire state they find themselves in. There could be tough times lying ahead for the capital’s team.
4. Long seasons await Seongnam, Incheon and Daejeon
Last season’s shock FA Cup winners Seongnam have a paper-thin squad built on one of the lowest budgets in the league. The fact they are competitive in the ACL and spectacularly upset Guangzhou R&F this week is testament to the extraordinary job coach Kim Hak-Bum has done in turning the side into Korea’s most organised side since taking over mid-way through last season.
However, the obvious lack of goals and creativity in the side mean that wins will be hard to come by, although observers can expect to see plenty more draws.
Incheon, another team with financial issues, haemorrhaged talent in the summer. They, along with newcomers Daejeon, look completely devoid of the talent needed to pick up any sort of consistent form.
5. Fans are flocking back to the K-League
The K-League has welcomed the highest number of fans it has ever had since records began a few years ago without incident, save for the bizarre case of a dead magpie (in reference to Seongnam’s mascot) found by a Jeonju World Cup Stadium stairway.
83,871 fans visited six stadiums on the first day of the season, with the biggest crowd in Jeonju where 23,180 packed in to watch Jeonbuk Motors.
Korea is known for the meteoric rise and fall of fads in a country which likes to look forward rather than back. Football is growing in popularity again after a horrendous match fixing scandal in 2011 which led to several players being sent to prison or committing suicide in what became a huge stain on football’s image. Slowly, trust has been rebuilt, and it is likely we will see more record attendances as the season progresses.