K-League United Supremo Ryan Walters may have previous for changing teams, but it still came as a surprise on the first Sunday of the season when one of his top Capos, Jeonbuk’s Matt Binns, was at it too. Earlier the same day, friend of the pod and confirmed Bluewing chiefinkorea did exactly the same thing. Both these lifelong football men had gone against their one-club nature and morals and bought season tickets for the same club: Suwon FC in the K-League 2.
Matt’s tall-tale was that it “only cost 60,000 Won” and “I wanted the umbrella that was included”, while the Chief tried to explain away his cross-town shifting of allegiance by way of the fact his youngest son is in Suwon City’s youth set-up and it seemed “the right thing to do”. No-one bought it. No, Matt and Joe were surely seduced by something else. Four something elses, to be precise: The four awe-inspiring masterpieces of vision, design and function that are the Suwon Civil Stadium floodlights.
Everyone remembers their first time. Mine was at a Hyundai Unicorns baseball game circa 2006. Dragged along by Korean acquaintances and not happy about being there to watch a sport I didn’t understand and at 25 years old, too young even to appreciate the motivational charm of the cheerleaders, I was finding everything just too…for want of a better word, American. After a couple of “innings” sulkily staring into my Cass Red, I looked up and beyond what I would later learn is called “the outfield”, there they were, silhouetted against the night sky. Four magnificent concrete erections, whose purpose was evidently to provide illumination for football matches but whose very existence was an event in itself. They weren’t even switched on. They didn’t need to be.
“What’s that?” I stuttered to my Korean handlers. “It’s the next-door stadium” offered one, rather unhelpfully. “I think Suwon Samsung used to play there before the World Cup”, said the other, who was evidently slightly more clued up on the important things in life.
200 feet high and each with 96 bulbs on a huge array slanted towards the pitch at the kind of impossibly perfect angle reminiscent of a late 90’s Ko Jong-soo free-kick – and he bent in a few underneath them – their height, their heft and their overall beauty mean that if there were a pornhub of floodlights, they would be Premium. In the almost eleven years since that fateful night, I’ve found many “reasons” to visit the Sports Complex; be it Suwon City in the N-League and then the K-League, Volleyball, women’s football and since kt-wiz were formed and took up residence in the Unicorns’ old place, remarkably discovering I liked baseball after all. But the real purpose has always been the same: To pay homage to the Big Boys.
Say what you like about the identikit and now crumbling concrete cookie-cutter civil stadium dust-bowls that every town and city in Korea put up in the early 1980s. Running tracks, bizarrely located toilets, uneven staircases, shallow banking but precipitous and unexpected drops that make twisted ankles not a risk but a near certainty, and of course, everything being totally exposed to the elements are par for the eye-straining course. No-one would argue they are good venues for football, but when it came to installing floodlights, they didn’t muck about.
Because while Suwon is the Granddaddy of them all, they’re not totally alone. Seoul World Cup Stadium may well be one of the most perfect football stadiums ever built. Yet those lights subtly embedded in the roof can’t hold a candle to, picking an example purely at random, the imposing inverted triangles of Anyang (or the “Sukhavati Sirens”, as they’re known to connoisseurs). For a time, Anyang even used them when announcing new signings, the mark of a club that knows its best asset when it sees it.
Hyochang Park in Seoul is the oldest Korean football stadium in continual use – though with its artificial pitch, sadly not for K-League – and it boasts four fine but fading towers. The ivy is encroaching and so many bulbs have been removed that Seoul City Women have to play their home games in the summer months on Jamsil’s practice ground (which itself has some striking pylons), as they don’t come up to TV specifications for evening games. But how they still dominate the skyline of that particular part of old-town Seoul. What a sight they must have been in their heyday on the walk up from Yongsan Station on a big international night.
From the Busan Gudeok’s Hyochang-style bruisers to Gangneung Civil’s steel artworks that could probably pull double time supporting cable cars in the local ski-resorts in the close season, the old-school stadiums of Korea offer a rich seam of stimulation for the floodlight fanatic. With stadium design and modern lighting requirements having moved on, the 2002 World Cup venues can’t offer the same kind of creativity and diversity and of the ten, only Jeju’s World Cup Stadium has pylons and even then, on only one side of the ground – and this is only because on that side the 2nd tier was temporary and removed at the end of the tournament.
Some of the non-World Cup grounds that were built at the same time did go the pylon route, such as the LePorts in Bucheon and Tancheon in Seongnam – the latter didn’t even have a roof when it was built so there was no other option. They’re on the thin side but at night they can still get the juices flowing as one approaches the ground.
Seongnam does well on the floodlight front as over in the seedy side of town, “Number 1 Stadium” boasts four 35-metre towers on one side and a lengthy array on the roof on the opposite side of a ground that was used for the hockey in the 1988 Olympics (“Where were the Germans? But, frankly, who cares?” and all that). Was it any coincidence that when playing under them, Seongnam were one of the best teams in Asia? I doubt it. No wonder the Seongnam hardcore wants the club to move back.
Gwangyang’s “Diamonds”, put up in the early 1990’s, are worth an honourable mention and the Dragon’s Den has the best “View+Floodlights” score in the K-League, having no running track but real man-sized lights. Staying down South, Gyeongnam’s Football Centre offers a great view but spindly little pylons, nothing like the big rectangular beasts that illuminate the downtown Changwon Civil Stadium.
The Pohang Steelyard and especially Incheon Sungeui Arena are magnificent places to watch football (albeit not places to watch magnificent football) but both would be infinitely improved by the presence of some big proper floodlights looming overhead. Preferably with Chelyabinsk Metallurgical Plant as architectural inspiration.
Even the powers that be recognise the significance of a pylon. After all, what is the only thing that remains of the spiritual home of the K-League, Dongdaemun Stadium, since they razed both it and the adjacent rounders ground to make way for the sleek something whose purpose has never quite been adequately explained? That’s right, a pair of floodlights.
So, cherish the upturned pyramids of Anyang, the diamonds of Gwangyang and the graceful ageing of Hyochang. But as Matt and Joe recognise, they’re merely footnotes in floodlight history next to the glorious phosphorescent viagra of Suwon City’s brutalist beauties. Enjoy them, chaps, because they don’t make them like that anymore.