When back-to-back K League winners Jeonbuk Hyundai unveiled their friendly fixture in Dubai against Borussia Dortmund, many Korean football fans took the announcement as a badge of honour.
Before finally accepting the proposal from Dortmund, Jeonbuk had reportedly turned down the eight-time German champions on three separate occasions, citing a scheduling conflict during their training camp in Dubai. The reason behind Dortmund’s persistence in chasing Jeonbuk for the exhibition match—to be aired live in both Germany and Korea on 15 January—is still unclear, but that a Korean club were courted by a European powerhouse was something of a “recognition,” some football fans back home proclaimed.
“Surely, for Dortmund, playing a friendly against a top Asian club must have been too good of an opportunity to miss,” read one fan’s comment to an article titled, “Why Did Jeonbuk Spurn Dortmund Three Times?” on Naver Sports, the Korean equivalent of Yahoo Sports.
Truthfully, it’s a moot point to debate if playing Dortmund in a friendly is indeed a recognition that warrants celebration for Jeonbuk and the K League. But more interesting debate could arise if that question centers on whether Jeonbuk, who’ve won the K League title four times in the last seven seasons, could become Korea’s first ever mega club.
As many star players in the K League are opting to move abroad for more lucrative contracts with the recent trend of clubs trimming their budgets, Jeonbuk have been the league’s only side that have kept their core players whilst spending more money to strengthen the squad even further. The K League’s current state and its projected future are getting bleaker as years pass by for various reasons involving corruption and strained financial capacity, but Jeonbuk—the last bastion of hope for domestic football in Korea—have been the only club to buck this downward spiral with their success on the pitch and ambitions off it.
Jeonbuk were crowned K League Classic champions in 2014 and 2015
The timing of Jeonbuk’s announcement of the Dortmund match coincided with reports from various media outlets explaining that the club are looking to cap the winter transfer market with a marquee signing, a big-name player who “even the general public could easily recognise,” said manager Choi Kang-hee. Soon after, rumours linking the likes of Robin van Persie and Fernando Torres to Jeonbuk followed. In fact, since 2014, it has been widely known amongst football writers in Korea that Choi has submitted a formal request to Jeonbuk’s parent company Hyundai Motor Group to provide funding for a groundbreaking signing that will help the club proudly promote themselves as Asia’s very best.
Choi emphasized once again after the 2015 season that the standard of football at the AFC Champions League has grown exponentially after he last won it with Jeonbuk in 2006, to a point at which for his side to reclaim the continental title, he would need at least one top-of-the-line player who can rival the likes of Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande’s Brazilian internationals; former Real Madrid forward Robinho, Tottenham midfielder Paulinho and Brazil’s Golden Ball winner Ricardo Goulart from this past season. It has since been revealed that Jeonbuk have held preliminary talks with Didier Drogba’s agent last summer, although the Ivorian eventually chose to join Montreal Impact instead.
It’s true that the Hyundai Motor Group gave Choi the green light to speak to any player he wishes to sign, but just how much financial backing they will provide when tabling an actual offer is uncertain. Sources close to the Jeonbuk boardroom say that the corporation’s executives understand the marketing benefits the firm could reap from signing an international star, but they remain doubtful over whether spending around $10 million a year on one soon-to-be retired foreign player is worth the investment as the base popularity of domestic football in Korea, unlike the national team and European football, suggests that the investment poses a high risk. After all, the K League is where an average player is paid $169k. Jeonbuk winger Leonardo Pereira, the league’s highest earner, collected $1.29 million in 2015. The 2015 payroll of Jeonbuk’s squad topped out at $12 million while the other 11 clubs spent less than $9 million.
Besides, convincing a player who has built an established career in Europe to move to Korea let alone to a rural city of Jeonju would be a monumental challenge in and of itself. Add to that Korea’s 40% tax rate for high earning professional athletes, Jeonbuk would have to spend more money on one marquee player than their total expenditure on the rest of the squad of more than 30 players if they were to match the salary of a renowned star such as van Persie, who has reportedly signed a deal worth at least $7 million-per-year with Fenerbahçe last year.
The grim reality prompted the Hyundai Motor Group to offer an alternative to Jeonbuk. The company asked the club to sign a player who they believed would guarantee a hit amongst the general public. The proposed plan, believed to have been made a year ago, was to sign Korea’s biggest star from Europe; if Choi can convince then Bayer Leverkusen forward Son Heung-min, a player he coached during his year-and-a-half managerial stint with the national team in 2012 and 2013, to play for Jeonbuk, he would be backed with full financial support for the 23-year-old’s transfer fee and salary to reach a deal at all costs.
Hyundai Motor Group asked Jeonbuk to sign Korean star Son Heung-Min
Taken aback by the outlandish proposal, Choi had to take his time to explain to the corporate executives that luring one of their own from Europe would not only be harder than it seems, but also immensely unpopular amongst most football fans as watching the country’s star footballers play at the biggest stage in the world is their favourite pastime. Six months later, Son left Leverkusen to join Tottenham on a $32 million deal. That such a proposal was even considered by those who call the shots at the club is perhaps a sign that shows just how much of a disconnect exists between football fans in Korea and those responsible for popularising the game in the country.
The truth is, there are more important tasks ahead for Jeonbuk to prioritise over a big-name signing before they can meet the prerequisites of becoming anything close to a mega club. In 2015, Jeonbuk led the K League with an average attendance of 17,418, but 5,915 of that figure is attributed to those who were granted free admission. Jeonbuk have been actively distributing free tickets through local events for years to fill seats and to provide open access to general fans in the hopes of captivating them with matchday experience, which the club believe could lead to a larger, more loyal fan base in the long run. The bright side, though, is that the number of Jeonbuk’s paying fans rose to 11,503 last year from 7,318 in 2014, hinting that the club’s strategic approach could start to pay dividends.
Still, an average fan who attended Jeonbuk’s home match in 2015 spent only $4 on admission and concession, according to the financial report released by the K League last month. That means Jeonbuk’s total matchday revenue, at $1.3 million, was barely enough to cover the salary of Leonardo, their highest paid player. Considering the K League’s current financial state, all signs indicate that no club—not even Jeonbuk—have taken the necessary steps to be prepared to become home to a global football star.
As things currently stand, whilst Jeonbuk have made a plausible effort to grow since they first won the K League title in 2009 after failing to win it in the first 14 years of the club’s existence, their goal of becoming a mega club still seems like a pipedream.