This is my first proper season following the exploits of the South Korean K League, and I have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed it so far, especially as the season has been an exciting one. Plus I have enjoyed learning about a brand new league, its teams and players who play for them. From the first half of the season, here are just some of my observations and thoughts about the K League season that I have discovered so far…
An Unexpected Title Race
As Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have dominated the K League over the past few seasons, winning four of the last five championships, not many pundits expected there to be much of a title challenge to occur this season. However we are now into August, and Jeonbuk are very much within a battle to regain their league championship, and are certainly not at the top of the table. That position is currently fulfilled by Ulsan Hyundai, who have been super impressive this season. Having the goalscoring of Kim Bo-kyung and the Brazilian Junior (both scoring 10 goals each currently), as well as the midfield creativity from US international, Mix Diskerud, and Kim Tae-hwan, plus the defensive solidity of Dave Bulthuis, the Horangi are looking very strong challengers this season.
In addition, having acquired both Australian international defender, Jason Davidson, from Perth Glory, and Korea’s number one goalkeeper, Kim Seung-gyu, from Vissel Kobe, Ulsan have certainly strengthen defensively for the second half of the season. This is in stark contrast to Jeonbuk, who lost mercurial star striker, the Wookie Kim Shin-wook to Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua, as well as Brazilian forwards Tiago Alves and Adriano. This would have left them with just one fit striker, the iconic Lee Dong-gook, who is still playing at the venerable age of 40. However during the summer transfer window, they managed to bring in a couple of forwards; Samuel from Al Nasr of Dubai, as well as Kim Seung-dae from Pohang (who currently joint-leads the assist charts with 7 assists).
At one point during the season, it looked as if it could have been a four-way challenge for the title, with both FC Seoul and Daegu FC also looking in decent form. After having a dismal campaign last season by just maintaining their K1 spot through the relegation playoff, it was a huge surprise to see Seoul having such a great start. The performances of Aleksander Pesic, Ikromjon Alibaev, captain Go Yo-han and the legendary Osmar, plus crucial late goals from Park Chu-young, were helping the capital club maintain a superb start to the season. Whilst last season’s cup winners, Daegu, were having a great start through the efforts of (in my opinion) the league’s MVP, Cesinha, who has currently scored 9 nine goals and 6 assists this season so far, and goals from compatriot Edgar. Plus they had the talented and sort after Jo Hyeon-woo between the sticks.
However over the past month, both sides have fallen off the pace somewhat with Seoul experiencing a couple of recent defeats against both Jeonbuk and Ulsan, whilst Daegu’s form has fallen completely off a cliff and have dropped out of the top 4 completely. Daegu not helped with a spate of injuries, plus continuous speculation about a potential move for Jo to a European club.
Gangwon – The Great Union of Surprise
The surprise packages of this season so far has been the 곰/Gom of Gangwon. Having finished in eighth position last season, most pundits were expecting another mid-table finish for the team from the north-east. However they have surprised everyone by going on an incredible run, especially in home fixtures at Chuncheon, to currently sit fourth in the table, seven points behind Seoul and five points clear of Daegu in fifth.
Helped by the goals of Cho Jae-wan and Kim Ji-hyeon, who have both scored eight goals each, plus the creativity of Jung Seung-yong (who has got five assists this season so far), they have become the league’s most exciting team to watch through their swash-buckling attacking play which has seen them gain many admirers. Their biggest highlight of the season came in the season’s most entertaining game when they played against Pohang Steelers.
Finding themselves 0-4 down to Pohang at home, they managed to fight back to 2-4 by the end of 90 minutes, however three very late goals within injury time, which resulted in a 96th minute headed winner from Jung Jo-gook, ensured Gangwon would snatch an unlikely win away from the jaws of defeat, and produce the ultimate comeback in 2019! The highlights for this incredible game can be found below:
Battling to Avoid Relegation
This season has seen some surprising teams involved in, what is proving to be, a fiercely fought relegation battle. Incheon United has repeated last season by being in the thick of things, especially after surprisingly sacking manager Jørn Anderson after just seven games. Despite only earning just four points from his seven matches in charge, Incheon looked a stronger outfit and were unlucky in some of their games. Anderson was replaced by Yoo Sang-chul but results have not improved as they have been in the bottom position for 15 of the 25 gameweeks so far, and earned just one win in their last ten games. Plus the Durumi are the league’s lowest goalscorers with just fifteen goals this season.
Joining Incheon at the wrong end of the table are surprisingly Jeju United and Gyeongnam, who have struggled this season. Gyeongnam have suffered from a combination of having an initial busy schedule (having played in the AFC Champions League this year), a thin strength in depth with their squad, which has been mercilessly exposed through a constant stream of injuries to key players. The Reds’ talented Japanese playmaker, Takahiro Kunimoto, has been unavailable for the majority of the season, whilst Luc Castaignos has been in and out of the side through continuous injuries. The side did have the services of former Birmingham, Cardiff and Crystal Palace player, Jordon Mutch, who was widely heralded when he arrived at the club in January. Alas a combo of injuries and suspensions meant he only played eight games for the club, and then had his contract mutually cancelled in July.
Whereas Jeju United have just struggled all season despite having what seemed like an excellent squad on paper. Having such foreign talent like Magno Cruz, Costa Rican international, Elias Aguilar and Aleksandar Jovanovic, it was expected they would perhaps challenge for the AFC Champions League places this season, but it has been a bit of a disaster. Jo Sung-hwan started the season as the Islanders manager, but he was replaced in early May by former Daejeon Citizen and Gangwon manager, Choi Yun-kyum. They were deep in the relegation spots although recently Choi, has made them more difficult to break down and beat, meaning they occupy tenth position currently, and the best place of the three teams within the league.
With ninth placed side, Pohang Steelers, a massive twelve points clear of Jeju, it is likely the relegation and playoff spots will be occupied by two of the three teams. The interesting contest will be who will finish in the safety of tenth position?
KFA Cup – A Surprise Final Four
This year’s Korean FA Cup has produced massive shocks and surprises throughout the rounds. In the fourth round, both Ulsan and Jeonbuk were knocked out to lower league opposition, as well as Incheon United who lost to Cheongju FC. Defending champions Daegu crashed out of the cup in the fifth round to Gyeongnam, who then suffered a shock defeat to Hwaseong FC in the quarter-finals. Gangwon also fell to lower league opposition in the quarter-finals, losing 0-2 to Daejeon Korail.
As a result, the final four teams in this season’s cup competition are a huge surprise. There are the K1 teams Suwon Bluewings and Sangju Sangmu still left, but there are also Daejeon Korail of the National League (third tier) and Hwaseong FC of the K3 Advanced League (fourth tier). In the two legged semi-finals, Korail will take on Sangju whilst Hwaseong will face Suwon.
The winners of the KFA Cup automatically qualify for the 2020 AFC Champions League, however regarding this year’s final four, only one team can theoretically qualify for the continental competition. Suwon Bluewings can qualify, should they win the trophy. They are favourites for the trophy, and they should take it seriously as it will be their only real option of qualifying for the Champions League this season. However the other three teams cannot play in the Champions League should they win the cup. Sangju Sangmu cannot qualify due to them being a military team, whilst the other two teams are semi-professional and amateur sides, and outside of the K-League structure.
Should Suwon mess things up in the cup (which could potentially happen), then the AFC Champions League qualifying spot will be transferred to the team who finished in fourth position in the K1 at the end of the season.
Korean Asian Knockout
In this season’s AFC Champions League, K1 champions Jeonbuk Motors, were regarded as one of the favourites for winning the continental competition, due to their strong squad. Also Ulsan Hyundai were considered dark horses for the title, again due to the strength of their team. Last season’s surprise runners-up, Gyeongnam FC and 2018 KFA Cup winners Daegu FC, would be competing in their first ever AFCCL campaigns, and felt confident they would qualify for the knockout stages.
Alas both debutants were knocked out at the group stage despite producing some great performances. Gyeongnam managed to beat the defending AFCCL champions, Kashima Antlers in Japan. However letting a 2-0 lead become a 2-3 defeat to the Antlers in the reverse fixture, and conceding a 87th winner from Shandong’s Marouane Fellaini, meant they finished the campaign in third place with eight points. Whilst Daegu started their campaign impressively, winning their first two group games including a 3-1 win over Chinese powerhouses Guangzhou Evergrande. Sadly for the Sky Blues, one win in their next four games meant they too finished in third position on nine points.
Both Jeonbuk and Ulsan qualified for the knockout stages having both finished as group winners, and were showing signs of being title challengers. Shockingly both sides would be eliminated in the Round of 16, leaving no Korean sides left in the competition. Jeonbuk drew 2-2 with Shanghai SIPG on aggregate, but lost 3-5 on penalties, adding more pressure on Jeonbuk’s former Barnsley manager, Jose Morais. Whilst Ulsan were more disappointed with their exit having got a 2-1 lead against Urawa Red Diamonds after the first leg. A heavy 0-3 defeat in the second leg however, saw them crash out of the competition 2-4 on aggregate.
2019 has not been a great year for Korean sides in the Champions League!
Gwangju – Masters of the K2?
The South Jeolla side have been the dominant side in the K2 this season, having stayed unbeaten in their first nineteengames of the league campaign. The Yellows’ star striker, the Brazillian Felipe, has been one of the surprise packages of the season, having grabbed himself 15 goals this season, whilst fellow Brazilian Willyan has impressed upfront also. However it is their defence which has been the most impressive section of the side, with the combination of Uzbek international Rustam Ashurmatov and Lee Han-do ensuring the Yellows just conceded just eight goals after their first nineteen games.
However their undefeated streak and defensive solidity was shocking destroyed when they faced FC Anyang in late July. A 7-1 victory for the Purples stunned everyone, and completely smashed Gwangju’s hope for an unbeaten season. Since that shocking defeat, Gwangju have continued to maintain their lead at the top of the table, although a draw to Jeonnam Dragons in their previous game, has raised questions about their title challenge, which looked a certainty a few weeks ago. Despite that, they still have a seven point margin from Busan I-Park in second position, and still maintain the best defense in the K League with 16 goals conceded in 22 games.
The Old Lady Receives Abuse
During the middle of this season’s K League schedule, a K League Select XI side was picked to play against the Italian champions, Juventus, as part of the Bianconeri’s Asian tour. As you can imagine, this was heavily promoted by the league and the match’s organisers, The Fasta. This resulted in many tickets being sold, some for extraordinary prices, with the Korean fans eager to see one of Europe’s best sides, and Cristiano Ronaldo in particular, who was guaranteed to “play at least 45 minutes” in the game. Unfortunately this show piece occasion has turned into a nightmare…
Firstly anger was created when Juventus turned up late at the ground, having traveled from China that very day. This meant the kick-off was delayed up to an hour, and also didn’t do any of the scheduled autograph signings that were announced. However most importantly, and central to the controversy this game has caused, Cristiano Ronaldo did not play any minutes of the match, despite being sat on the bench throughout the game. Supporters were became naturally annoyed with many of them spending big amounts of Won to see Ronaldo play in Seoul. Despite chanting his name, Ronaldo was never substituted onto the field, which resulted in the crowd chanting “Messi! Messi! Messi!” in his direction as a result of their anger.
[NOTE: See the article from K-League United when they gave their Team K League Player Ratings HERE]
After the game, Juventus claimed that Ronaldo had suffered “muscle fatigue” and was advised not to play by the club doctors. However no communication was made about this, prior to the game. This has lead to a massive fallout, with many people being angry over the ticket sales and apparently being “duped” by thinking Ronaldo would play, and now pursuing legal action.
Overall, a game which was supposed to promote Juventus in Korea, and highlight the K League’s finest starts has become embarrassing for the KL and the organisers, whilst Juve’s conduct throughout has not helped in the situation. A massive shame really as the game was a very good game, with the K League XI being more than a match for their more illustrious opponents. In the end, the game finished 3-3 although the KLXI were 3-1 at one point before making a wave of substitutions.
MVPs of the Season So Far
For me three men have been the MVPs of the K League so far this season, and rather aptly, scored the three goals against Juventus in the controversial K League versus Juventus game:
- Cesinha (Daegu FC)
- Adam Taggart (Suwon Samsung Bluewings)
- Osmar (FC Seoul)
Cesinha has undoubtedly been the league’s best player this season, having scored nine league goals and six assists for Daegu in K1. The Brazilian was key to Daegu’s decent performance earlier in the season, and has been the citizen club’s main attacking threat throughout the season. He also scored one of the best goals of the season when he thundered in a free-kick from miles out!
Australian striker, Adam Taggart, was signed at the start of the season by Suwon from A-League side, Brisbane Roar, and he has been the signing of the season so far. In 21 games for the Bluewings this season, the Aussie has scored fourteen goals, and sees him currently top the K1 goalscoring charts with thirteen goals. An excellent amount for someone making his debut in the K League! His excellent form for the Bluewings has also seen him make a welcome return to the Australian national team.
FC Seoul’s lynchpin, the Spaniard Osmar, has been crucial to Seoul’s revival this season. Having returned back from his loan spell at J-League’s Cerezo Osaka, the defensive-midfielder or centre-back has been in excellent form for the capital side, and saw him selected for the K League XI side. Having scored a number of excellent goals for his club side this season, he managed to score a cracker in the friendly game, when he dispossessed Gonzalo Higuain at the halfway line, run about twenty yards before rifling the ball into the top corner of the Juventus net! Unbelievable!!!
Here are a couple of my alternative MVPs who have made me smile and chuckle throughout the season so far:
The T-Rex Gangwon Fan
As Gangwon are having a great season, the camera keeps cutting to the crowd, where one hardy supporter comes to every game dressed in an inflatable T-Rex outfit. It is quite the eye-catcher and seeing an inflatable dinosaur bounce up and down whilst celebrating a Gangwon goal, has made me chuckle every time I have seen it. Also much respect must go to the supporter, as I can imagine it must get very warm and humid in that costume, especially during Korea’s summer months. That is pure commitment to the cause, and I bloody love it!
Football mascots are a bit “marmitey”, some people hate them whilst others love them. Personally, I fall into the latter camp and blooming love seeing mascots. Daegu’s mascots are probably the best ones with a large orange, devil type character and a cute, football-hedgehog hybrid character seen at every home game. Why they have made my alternative MVP list is because they absolutely smashed a dance routine during a half time show. Popular K-Pop girl group, Momoland, performed a couple of songs for the Daegu crowd during one such half time, with the mascots in the background following the complicated dance routines. Needless to say, they smashed the routine, and I couldn’t stop chuckling over it. When the Momoland members are also laughing at them mid-song, you know you’re onto a winner! Top work from the mascots!
Sources of Information
So for this second part of my delve into the K League, I have used the following sources of Korean football information to improve my Korean football knowledge. If you haven’t already checked them out, please visit the website or listen to the podcasts, as they are excellently produced by people who are absolute experts in Korean and Asian football!
- Official K-League: [Website]; [YouTube]; [Facebook]
- SPOTV: [YouTube]
- K-League United: [Website]; [YouTube]; [Twitter]; [Facebook]; [Patreon]
- 48 Shades of Football: [Twitter]; [Facebook]; [Podcast]
- From The Tofu Bowl: [Website]; [Twitter]; [Facebook]; [Podcast]
- The K-League Kilt: [Website]; [Twitter]; [Facebook]
- K League Football: [Website]; [YouTube]; [Twitter]; [Facebook]
- Football Paul: [Website]; [YouTube]; [Twitter]; [Facebook]
- Modern Seoul: [Website]; [Twitter]; [Facebook]
- Tavern of the Taegeuk Warriors: [Website]; [Twitter]; [Facebook]; [Podcast]
- The Asian Game: [Website]; [Twitter]; [Facebook]
Thanks for reading!