On a mild Tuesday in October, your correspondent arrived at Gojan Station. Killing time and getting the daily step-counter up by doing a circuit of the Wa-Stadium Complex, a ball suddenly bounced over a low fence and through a line of trees coming to a halt a few paces ahead of me and just short of going into a busy road.
“Ah, FC Seoul must be doing shooting practice”, I thought to myself. I retrieved the ball and lobbed it back over the fence which separates the road from a football pitch and where, sure enough, a young man wearing an FC Seoul tracksuit and a pathetically grateful expression – it would have been a very long walk out of the only gate and around to the road – is waiting. “Thank you!” he says, in English. “Is there a game on?” I ask, innocently. “Yes!” he replies.
There might be something worrying about actively enjoying – and even seeking out – a game that involves two professional teams but is scheduled at a random time with hardly anybody watching and where not even the players really care about the result. But enough about the Asia Champions League, We’re here to talk about the R-League.
If you’re a long-time K-League addict whose current job involves working every single weekend, you grab every opportunity to watch a game that you can. That means Tuesday nights in January for ACL qualifiers in Suwon and Monday nights at the Womens’ K-League . It also means the R-League, the league for K-League teams Reserve squads – ostensibly these days, for Under 23s.
And these days, accessible games are few and far between what with the likes of FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings playing their home games at their training complexes in the middle of nowhere (“Guri Champions Park” and “Bluewings Clubhouse”, respectively), while Seongnam, who used to play their Reserve matches in the glorious old pile that is Moran Stadium – and get a good couple of hundred showing up – have cut their R-League team completely in a desperate attempt to save a few Won as they cling to existence.
Incheon United play at a remote pitch with an imposing fence around it on an industrial estate on the border of Songdo while E-land play theirs at the pretentious sounding company-owned “Kensington Resort”. Neither are especially spectator friendly. That leaves Ansan and Bucheon as the only teams in striking distance of Seoul who play their games on the pitches right outside their main stadiums (or sometimes in the actual stadium itself) and who generally have a few people turn up and watch. It wasn’t always like this.
Eleven years ago, for one day only the R-League made the national news. A half-decade after his Golden Goal knocked Italy out of the 2002 World Cup, but long before he caused even more of a shock by becoming one of Korea Sports TV’s most well-spoken and incisive pundits, Ahn Jung-hwan found himself back in Korea at the Seoul World Cup Practice Pitch wearing the blue of the Suwon Bluewings. And that afternoon, R-League made the national news in a way that possibly prefaced Ahn’s role as one of the most outspoken voices on the shortcomings of the K-League
There was plenty of fanfare about his arrival back home. Ahn hadn’t played in the K-League since finishing up with the Busan I’Cons prior to 2002 and had gone on to become a superstar shortly afterwards. Since then, things had perhaps gone to his luxuriously coiffed head as after two very good seasons in Japan, he’d been distinctly underwhelming in Europe at Metz and Duisberg. When several rumored transfers failed to materialise – including a famous no-show for a trial at Blackburn Rovers – the Bluewings brought him back to Korea at the start of the 2007 season. Suwon were cautious though, and the word was that he was on a low base salary with generous appearance and goal bonuses.
Suwon’s instincts were proved correct. Ahn made 15 K-League appearances in that 2007 season but failed to find the back of the net in any of them and by September he was no doubt getting royally annoyed with everything. At least he was scoring somewhere though. On the afternoon of September 10th, a Monday, Ahn netted early for Suwon Reserves away at FC Seoul Reserves. The thing about reserve games then and now is that not only can the “crowd” hear everything the players say, but the players can hear everything that’s said back. That day, in the shadow of Sangam, Ahn was getting pelters from the tiny band of FC Seoul fans in attendance and one lady was particularly vociferous.
“Hey Ahn! What’s your appearance fee for this?”, “Hey Ahn, you going to do some big ceremony if you win?” “Hey Ahn, you’re a very handsome man! What are you doing here?.”
Ahn scores. She doesn’t stop. “Hey, Lord Of The Ring! Why didn’t you kiss your wedding ring when you scored?” (such a gesture was Ahn Jung-hwan’s usual celebration after scoring and local media dubbed him “Lord Of The Ring” – he is married to Miss Korea 2001), “Hey Ahn, will you get a 20 Million Won bonus for that goal?” And on and on and on.
She was relentless. After half an hour, Ahn Jung-hwan finally snapped. At the Seoul World Cup Practice pitch there is no running track and Ahn left the pitch, vaulted the low barrier and marched purposefully up the rows of seats to confront his abuser.
“Don’t do this! Why are you saying these things?” he yelled. All of a sudden, his antagonist fell quite silent. A couple of bystanders intercepted the World Cup semi-finalist before he could reach his target and ushered him out of the stand and back onto the touchline where an inevitable red-card awaited.
“It’s people like you who stop Korean football from developing!” was his parting shot as he was led away.
There were few journalists at the game, fewer photographers and just one video camera – this was pre-smartphone – so it took a while for the news to get out but the following day “Ahn Jung-hwan leaps into the stands to confront fan” led the news bulletins. Reaction though, was surprisingly sympathetic. Though the K-League fined him 10 Million won, he was given no further ban except for the one incurred for the straight red card. Perhaps even more surprisingly, FC Seoul’s “Suhosin” supporter’s club issued a statement apologizing to Ahn for the abuse. The woman involved was promptly identified and her “Cyworld” (this was 2007 and that was still a thing) blitzed. (John Duerden wrote about it at the time: https://www.soccerphile.com/soccerphile/news/korean-soccer/ahn-jung-hwan3.html).
Video including the perpetrator:
Over the years the R-League has changed. Until the creation of the K2, it was where the Police team played exclusively so Kim Do-heon, Yeom Ki-hun and Jung Jo-gook fangirls (and boys…and me) would follow them around. While now it is intended for players under 23, every now and then an big name working their way back to match fitness will make an appearance. There were about 30 FC Seoul fans at Ansan for that game in early October. The players didn’t even get to use the Wa Stadium facilities, getting straight off the bus at the practice pitch and changing in the adjacent portable toilets (interestingly though, the referee and linesman retreated to the main stadium’s dressing rooms as soon as the game was done). There was a total attendance of 17 for Ansan vs Bucheon two weeks later.
At Moran, you could do a lap of the running track of half-time. At Ansan, you can play the role of ball-boy all throughout if you like – you’ll be needed. And you can have a good wander on the pitch at half and full-time. It’s a lovely setting and the autumn leaves softly falling this week made for certain bucolic ideal in the weak afternoon sunshine.
Bucheon’s equaliser was a goal of the season contender; a volley on the turn from the edge of the area. A couple of us in the stand briefly clapped, one or two team-mates offered the scorer a handshake in congratulation. Then they went on playing. The 17 of us went on watching. That’s what we do in the R-League.