K-Popping: My Initial Delve into South Korean League Football

Introduction

As you might know from my tweets, I am a big Football Manager fan. However I was looking for a new challenge on the game. The English Premier League has become stale, I had played in the Welsh Premier numerous times before, and Europe’s big leagues had been explored in previous variants of FM. Therefore I was looking for a new FM challenge, in a league where I had little knowledge in, and hadn’t played in before in FM.

I did consider one of the “smaller” leagues in Europe, but was intrigued in choosing a football league in Asia, mainly because it was a different confederation than the usual UEFA that I am used to, but also that I wanted to improve my Asian football knowledge. It is fair to say that it was decidedly sketchy (at best)!

Looking at the Asian league choices available on FM, one of the Gulf leagues would have certainly been an interesting challenge. However one country ultimately stood out for me from the list – South Korea.

Why South Korea I hear you ask? Well considering star forward, Son Heung-Min, is tearing up for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League at the moment (and should have been nominated for PFA Player of the Year this season!), and that Korean culture is becoming more prevalent in today’s culture, either from its numerous global companies (such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai) or its even more numerous K-Pop bands breaking into the English-language music scene, the Republic of Korea (to give the country its proper name) is a country I don’t know too much about, sadly. Plus as someone who is always keen to learn about football leagues outside of Britain, I really wanted to know a lot more about Korean league football, and its national league, the K-League!

K-League Logo
The K-League Logo

I have had some initial, if brief, experience of the K-League beforehand. This came when I played as FC Seoul in the career mode of FIFA 13, and the Montenegrin striker, Dejan Damjanovic (now with the Suwon Samsung Bluewings), superbly led the front line and enabled me to clinch the K-League title. This was before I was whisked off to the Alps to take over FC Basel, and dominate Swiss football. However since my brief experience with the K-League in FIFA, I had not gone back to the K-League, and certainly had not played it in FM. Therefore I was very keen to vastly increase my knowledge about South Korean league football!

 

The K-League Structure

The South Korean professional football league is divided into two leagues; K-League 1 and K-League 2 (originally called K-League Classic and K-League Challenge from 2013 before changing to their more logical, current names in 2018). K-League 1 has 12 teams whilst K-League 2 has 10 teams in its league, meaning the K-League system has a total of 22 ‘franchised’ clubs.

In the KL1, teams play each other 3 times (after 33 games) before the league is split into a “championship” and “relegation” conferences (exactly like the Welsh Premier League after 22 games). The teams then play each team within their respective sub-league just the once to complete the 38 game season. Obviously, the best team in the Championship conference becomes the K-League champions, whilst 2nd and 3rd placed teams join the champions in qualifying for the AFC Champions League in the following season. The 4th place team can also qualify if the winners of the KFA Cup are a club who have already qualified for “Asia”, otherwise the cup winners take the fourth and final qualifying spot.

The team who finishes at the bottom of the relegation conference (i.e. finishes 12th) gets automatically relegated to the KL2, and replaced by the winners of the KL2. The 11th placed team then goes into a playoff format with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams from the KL2 to determine which one of the four teams will play in the KL1 for the following season.

The KL2 is an ordinary league format with every team playing each other four times, and playing 36 games (similar to the Scottish Championship). Currently there is no relegation from KL2 meaning 10th place is the lowest league finish any team can be placed within the K-League system.

Rules:

  • Only South Korean goalkeepers can be used.
  • 1 player 22 years old and under must be included within the starting XI. Originally it was an under 23 player but was amended for the start of the 2019 season.
  • Squads are limited to just 3 foreign players and a further 1 Asian player (i.e. any players from any AFC country). However North Korean players are considered as “home grown” and are thus not counted in the foreign quota.
  • The foreign quota will be amended for the 2020 season when an additional foreign player can be signed, providing they come from one of the ASEAN countries.

 

The Football Manager Save

So which team would I use for my first FM season in South Korea? Well I thought a welcome return to FC Seoul would be the best course of action, so I could try to replicate my past K-League heroics on FIFA. Alas I would not be (re) starting my Seoul adventure in the best of positions, as they were positioned in 11th place after 14 games of the 2018 season. Plus I would be four points adrift of the tenth placed team, and Gyeongin rival, Incheon United. It would seem I was going to have to improve my Korean football knowledge rapidly if I was going to get out of this situation!

FC Seoul - 21st April - Profile of Team
The profile of the FC Seoul team prior to remainder of the season taking place.
FC Seoul - 21st April - The 2018 League at Start of Save
FC Seoul’s position is not ideal at the start of my FM save…

First and foremost, I needed to find out a lot more about the teams I would be playing against in the K-League 1, such as their histories, players, etc. In addition I also read about the cities they were based in, as shamefully my geography knowledge of Korea wasn’t the best either and I wanted to expand my overall Korean knowledge ha!

2018 K League 1
The 2018 K-League 1 teams, with their cities/areas that they are based in. [IMAGE: Wikipedia]

In addition to learning about the teams, I needed to learn about my own team and in particular the players. The squad already had two decent foreign players, with the Spanish defensive midfield (and Seoul’s best player) Osmar being the key player in my formation, and occupying one of the foreign player slots. The Asian player slot has been covered by the Uzbek attacking left-back, Ikrom Alibaev, who had just been brought in from Lokomotiv Tashkent, and will easily slot into the left back role in my team!

[NOTE: Check out Alibaev’s amazing long range lobbed shot for Lokomotiv Tashkent in the 2018 AFC Champions League]

The squad has two decent goalkeepers, with Yang Han-Been and Yu Sang-Hun both vying for the number 1 slot, whilst they had a number of potentially decent young defenders. Midfield Jung Hyun-Choel looks an absolutely brilliant player and my first choice in the middle of the park, whilst Jung Won-Jin looks like a top player in the attacking left winger role. Finally FC Seoul have the mercurial and experienced Park Chu-Young up front. The former AS Monaco and Arsenal forward lacks pace, but makes up for it with decent mental stats.

Despite some positives to the Seoul squad, I did need to bring in some players as the team’s strength in depth was pretty weak, with the full back positions and central midfield being particular weak points. Park Sun-Ju and Kim Moon-Hwan were brought in from Gwangju FC and Busan I-Park respectively, with Kim being a particular promising right-back at just 22 years old (and fulfilling the one player under 23 rule). Whilst former FC Basel player (and someone I was aware of from that FIFA career mode with Basel), Kay Voser, was brought in on a free transfer to add experience at full back, and take up one of the foreign player spaces.

A further foreign player was brought into the club on a free transfer, with 21 year old Chilean forward, Sergio Riffo, being a very promising player and versatile in the forward positions. Whilst some experience was brought into midfield with the free signing of former Korean international, Oh Jang-Eun, as well as a £190k outlay for central midfield Park Jung-Soo from Gwangju FC. Finally some defensive solidity was brought in with the amazingly cheap bargain signing of Kwon Han-Jin for just £40k from Jeju United. He has already become my defensive lynch-pin in my 4-man defense, as well as popping up with crucial headers or clearances on occasions!!!

FC Seoul - 21st April - Transfers in 2018 Season
The transfers I brought into FC Seoul during the 2018 mid-season transfer window. Sergio Riffo and Kim Moon-hwan were excellent signings, whilst centre-back, Kwon Han-jin, was possibly the best signing I made – and for just £40k!!!!

 

Websites & Podcasts on South Korean Football

As well as finding about the clubs, and their rather interesting locations, I wanted to know more about the league in general and what was currently happening in it. Therefore I looked on Twitter, Facebook and iTunes for some South Korean football sites and podcasts, to help me get to grips with the K-League, and found the following sources of information:

If you get the chance, and are interested in learning more about the K-League, the above sources are absolutely excellent and I would highly recommend them! Also if you’re aware of any more Korean football websites or podcasts I should check out, then please let me know!

In addition to learning about the football league, I have also ‘attempted’ (a very loose term there) to start to learn Korean and the Hangul language. Utilizing a combination of the Duolingo online course, and YouTube videos, I am slowly learning the letters and pronunciations of them. The vowels I have gotten to grips with (I think) but the consonants are yet to be conquered…and I thought that Welsh would be difficult to learn!! This is a new level of difficulty, but I am up for the challenge!!

One of the videos on YouTube I watched to start to help me learn Hangul:

Anyway why have I started to learn Korean? Well partially for the challenge of learning a new language and alphabet to see if I can do it (always challenge yourself to learn something new, especially a new language – something fewer and fewer English speakers are doing nowadays), but also so I can get the pronunciations of players and teams correct. The last thing I want to do is pronounce the team names incorrectly!

 

What Have I Discovered So Far??

Here are a list of things I have learnt since I have started playing the FM save, reading numerous websites and listening to the podcasts:

  • Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are currently the most successful, wealthy and strongest (and thus most hated) team in the division currently, and they tend to buy the best players within the league to strengthen themselves and weaken rivals. Think of a Korean version of FC Bayern Muenchen or The New Saints.
  • FC Seoul used to be a decent team but have since slipped into inconsistent times. Despite having good support in terms of attendance, they had a shocking season in 2018. However they have started the 2019 season surprisingly quite brightly!
  • Gyeongnam FC are a very attacking team, who are exciting to watch, but also tend to concede a number of goals in the process. However they are prone to scoring very, very late goals!
  • Daegu FC are everybody’s second team currently, due to their aesthetically pleasing way they play football. They’re the current KFA Cup holders, having beaten Ulsan Hyundai 5-1 on aggregate (the final is played over two legs). They also have the best ‘football’ stadium in the league, having moved to a football-specific stadium this year!
  • Seongnam FC used to be one of the strongest teams in the league, when they were “Ilhwa Chunma” and owned by ‘the Moonies’, having won 7 titles between 1993 to 2006, as well as the AFC Champions League in 2010. However they are now owned by Seongnam City Council, and recently suffered relegation to KL2, but have since returned to the KL1 this year. Plus they have the cool nickname of “The Magpies” because of their all black kit.
  • K1’s Sangju Sangmu is a military team that players can play for when they do their mandatory 2-year military service. They are sent on loan from their parent club to Sangju for the duration of their military service. K2 side, Asan Mugunghwa used to also benefit from this partially as they used to be the side that represented the Korean Police. However since the Korean Police Agency decided to scrap their sports club in 2019, the club has been fully taken over by the Asan Government and is now a ‘citizen’ football club.
  • The Hyundai Group own two of the clubs, Jeonbuk and Ulsan. The Hyundai Motor Group own the latter, whilst Hyundai Heavy Industries own the latter club.
  • The K-League has a number of impressive and large stadiums, with the majority of them built for the 2002 World Cup, when South Korea were the co-hosts of the global football spectacle. Despite their impressive designs and large attendances, the clubs who play within the grounds sadly cannot seem to fill them, and thus creates an empty atmosphere. Sometimes clubs employ K-Pop bands to do a half time concert to encourage ‘punters’ through the gates. This has meant a number of clubs are moving to smaller, football-specific stadiums, such as Daegu and Gwangju (in the near future)
  • Seoul E-Land are traditionally not very good, although The Leopards have managed a few victories already this season!
  • A lot of the K-League clubs have amazing looking kits, and spectacular designs – they look even better with the Hangul lettering used for the sponsors and player names on the back!
  • Jeonbuk’s striker Kim Shin-wook has been given the brilliant nickname of “The Wookie” by the great people of 48 Shades of Football podcast.
  • Korean players’ names can vary in spelling when they are converted from the hangul alphabet to the Latinised alphabet. I have found that they can have different spellings between Wikipedia, FM, etc.
  • Highlights to all the games are readily available on YouTube / Facebook, which makes catching up on games a lot easier.
  • Even though I have taken over FC Seoul, I have found that I really like Gwangju FC, and they have become my Korean club of choice. They have yellow kits (my favourite colour), an impressive badge (which reminds me of the Liverpool FC badge, and is a good thing!), it seems like an interesting city from Jeolla province, and they currently play in the Guus Hiddink Stadium (named after the manager who led South Korea to the World Cup semi-finals)!!! Fantastic stuff!! I shall certainly have to do a FM save with them in the future!!
Gwangju FC
The Gwangju FC badge

 

To Be Continued…

So that is the start of my journey into learning about South Korean football. Hopefully as I continue to play through the FM save, I will learn more about my team, the players and the league. Also I will intend to listen and/or read more articles about the K-League, so I can increase my knowledge about the teams, their players, and Korean league football in general. I am hugely looking forward to it…just don’t expect me to start speaking in Korean just yet haha!

If you have any questions, suggestions or even comments, please leave them in the comments section below, or send a tweet to @The94thMin on Twitter. I would appreciate any feedback,

Also if anyone can tell me where I can buy a Gwangju FC home shirt and an FC Seoul home shirt with either Jung Hyun-Choel, Osmar or Alibaev on the back, that will deliver to North Wales, then I would be very, very grateful!

Until next time!

고마워.

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