by Joe Quinn (@chiefinkorea)
Five games. Four goals. 7,288 paying fans.
With K-League 1 on an international break, it was time for K-League 2 to take centre stage but those were the grim statistics for Korea’s second tier over the weekend. In fact, in the 20 games played over the first four rounds so far there have been only 38 goals in K-league 2. We’ve had four 0-0 results and six 1-0 results. Yes that’s right, half the games played have had one goal or less. Suwon FC, Seoul E-Land and Anyang have managed 2 goals in 4 games while Gwangju have only managed 1 goal.
Now, you can get a good goalless draw, the fans have no God given right to expect goals and defenders are there to do a job but given the big challenge facing Korean football, namely the start of the baseball season, can the game and certain teams survive this bleak start to the season? How long can a team in the capital city accept crowds of 560? Going head-to-head with the baseball is a reality teams like E-Land (LG and Doosan) and Suwon FC (KT Wiz) have to face so what can they do to attract fans?
Is it too simple to be asked to be entertained?
Now I’m not so naive to expect beautiful football every week and, being Scottish, have watched more than enough bad football over my journey. However in Scotland football is far and away the number one sport where passion for your team is ingrained in you from an early age and you’re there week in, week out regardless of league position and weather. Indeed Scotland has the highest football attendances on a per capita basis when population size is taken into consideration. (https://www.scotsman.com/sport/football/competitions/premiership/scottish-football-attendances-highest-in-europe-based-on-population-1-4662193) Korean football has numerous obstacles to overcome. Where does the onus for attempting to overcome these obstacles lie?
Would good football, more goals and an atmosphere not akin to a dentist’s waiting room (sorry, that is harsh) even make a difference to crowds in the face of baseball’s appeal in Korea?
I’ve never seen the appeal of baseball personally but it got me thinking – if I was interested in baseball and was tempted to go along, have Suwon FC done enough to keep me there instead? (I know the two are not mutually exclusive!!).
Due to a colleague’s wedding I missed Suwon FC v Bucheon on Saturday but their second most famous season ticket holder, Matt Binns, told me I “had chosen a good one to miss” Given I’d seen the previous three matches that was saying something.
Many pundits considered Suwon favourite for promotion given their activity in the transfer market pre-season but it’s been a very poor start to the season. Not just in terms of results – 1 win, 3 losses from 4 games (3 of which were at home) – but the style of football has been pretty disappointing after the pre-season hype. It’s hard to see what the game plan is. To me it seems that Kim Dae-eui is really struggling to get the team to gel and the chopping and changing of the line-up in the past 2 weeks suggests he isn’t sure what his best team is. In my brief report of Suwon FC’s opening day 1-0 win over E-Land I said the team looked unbalanced and the 3 games since have only reinforced that opinion.
Ahead of the Seongnam match on the 17th, when a much bigger crowd were next door for KT v Lotte in a baseball practice match, posters were up around the stadium promoting the “MBA” (the three foreign signings: Matheus, Bruno, Alex). These new signings were expected to light up the league and return Suwon FC to the Promised Land. Did that advertising force Kim to start the three of them against Seongnam when he’d rather not have? Who knows? But what is true is that after a 4-1 battering by Seognnam only Matheus kept his place for the Bucheon match with the other two taking a place on the bench. Bruno (the most exciting of the three from what I’ve seen) came on for the last 3 minutes while the much heralded Alex didn’t need to get his strip washed. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for foreign players to settle in especially when early results don’t go as well as you’d like so I hope it’s just a matter of time before things change for these guys.
The high turnover of players at almost every team every year must make it hard to find the right balance early in the season. And while Kim undoubtedly has the right to choose his own team I was more than surprised to see Mo Jae-hyun started against Bucheon on Saturday. The hour he played against Seongnam the week before gave me hope that if I knuckled down and shed about 25kg I might actually still make it at the ripe old age of 41.
Now, to be clear, I’m not actually calling for the manager’s head after a few disappointing results so early in the season but I’d argue that if we want to attract fans and be entertained at the football, it is the manager’s job to put in place a viable game plan and establish an identity for the team that fans can relate to and want to get behind. We can stick our heads in the sand and complain about big bad baseball taking all our fans or look for our clubs to do something about it off and preferably on the field. What’s that expression about doing the same things over and over yet expecting different results?
Korean teams are generally very supportive of managers. Hwang and Seo at still being in charge at FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings are the clearest examples of that. While there is much to be said for this approach in comparison to the willy-nilly hiring and firing in Europe, could it also project an attitude of indifference from the boards to the fans? Paul has repeatedly mentioned on the podcast that fans are staying away from FC Seoul matches or at least not buying season tickets as long as Hwang stays in charge. Is loyalty to, or perseverance with, managers alienating fans at other clubs? Do players and fans need new voices every few years?
That leads us to yet another question – Is there the depth of qualified coaches to put pressure on current managers? Returning to Suwon FC, Kim Dae-eui came across from the Bluewings under-18s team and the rather brutal question becomes “Is the step up to the professional leagues too much?” I really don’t think it should be and Kim has plenty of playing experience behind him but there must be a gnawing fear in the minds of some Suwon FC fans that the gamble has backfired. I’m not there yet but would like to see the identity of the team come to the fore over the coming weeks and months.
If the depth isn’t there, is it time to look overseas again? As an aside, I mentioned in my previous blog post, my son plays for Suwon FC U11s. 2 weeks ago they played a friendly match against FC Potential (FC 포텐셜, http://news.joins.com/article/22089028 ) who have links to Barcelona I believe and are unashamedly looking to unearth the next Lee Seungwoo (now at Hellas Verona of course). Anyway, this U11 team actually have a Spanish coach who, predominantly via an interpreter, has them playing lovely passing football with the goalkeeper seemingly banned from hitting a long ball. I’ve watched a lot of U12 and U11 football in the past few months and this team played by far the best football I’ve seen. It’s something to think about.
Looking ahead, Wednesday night will see Suwon FC welcome (I almost used the word entertain) Joongwon University in the FA Cup. It will be interesting to see what team Kim fields – a reserve team to reflect the opposition or a full strength team to work on cohesion and (hopefully) build confidence ahead of a trip to Anyang on Saturday. Whatever he chooses, it’s hard to imagine he’d survive a cup upset. Or, this being Korea, is it?