A recent article in the respected English football journal When Saturday Comes explored the direction taken by the Japanese Football Association in creating a successful professional league. Last year, the J-League drew an average crowd of 19,000, compared with the mean gate of 25,000 at an Italian Serie A game (Serie A being in the top 3 most vaunted leagues in the world). The author opined that part of the reason for this has been the healthy competition between the J-League and its Korean counterpart, the K-League. “What is interesting,” he mused, “is the way that the improvement of Japan and the J-League has also had a positive impact on the quality of the South Korean team and the K-League.”
There can be no disputing the progress made by South Korea’s national team over the past decade and the league as a whole has risen in profile and stature. But the news has seemingly yet to filter down to the people of Gwangju. The city’s local team, Gwangju Sangmu Phoenix, had an average attendance of 7,719 in 2009, the second lowest in the K-League. The figure is an absolute travesty when you consider the facilities the team boast at the Guus Hiddink World Cup Stadium, but a little more palatable when you consider some of the facts. Sangmu is the sporting division of the Military of South Korea and Phoenix is the professional football club. The playing staff is made up entirely of young Korean professional footballers serving their obligatory two years national service. Fifteen players sign for the team every season. They spend two seasons in Gwangju before returning to their previous professional club.
At a time when football is becoming ever more international, more glamorous and more colourful, the opportunity to watch eleven soldiers struggle to produce the desired level of cohesion and quality needed to challenge the big guns of Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Suwon Samsung Bluewings simply doesn’t register with the locals. Sangmu are not allowed to sign any foreign players because of their military status and as such, the side really doesn’t have the wow factor perhaps required to drag the punters away from the (erstwhile) successful baseball team Kia Tigers.
It’s particularly difficult when you consider the imports on show elsewhere. Ulsan Hyundai, for example, are lining up this season with Colombia internationals Juan Estiven Velez and Carmelo Valencia. Seongnam’s attack has been spearheaded by their compatriot Mauricio Molina. Montenegran striker Dejan Damjanović leads the line for FC Seoul and just about every other K-League outfit boasts players plucked from foreign leagues.
But that’s not to say a trip to the World Cup Stadium to support Sangmu isn’t worthwhile. Coming from Ireland, the local teams I grew up with could only dream of the amenities the faithful of Phoenix enjoy. The ground has a capacity of 44,118 and is an all-seater. Transport links are convenient and the fact that you can bring your own beers and do a quick food shop at the adjacent Lotte Mart means a Gwangju Sangmu home game makes for great day out: with a family or friends. Alas, the stadium doesn’t attract anything resembling a full house. I attended the K-League’s Round 11, when the visitors to Gwangju were Gangwon FC. The attendance was a paltry 2,367 (the stadium was under 5% full), but the quality of football on show was impressive, and the fervour of some of the fans that had attended was admirable. A troupe of bare-chested ultras led the chorus: banging out a steady rhythm on drums and chanting as though the stadium was heaving. For the most part though, the occasion was marked for its comfort and the mildness of the afternoon. Regular attendees of professional football would rarely describe their endeavours as pleasant, peaceful or tranquil, but the afternoon ticked all of those boxes.
Sangmu were in the driving seat for the most part and their dominance paid off when Kim Dong-Hyun broke the deadlock early in the second half. They held out for a narrow victory, although Gangwon rarely looked like troubling Seong Kyun-Il’s goal. The Sangmu line-up contained midfielder Kim Jung-Woo, who went on to impress in the World Cup in South Africa, playing in all four of ROK’s games. It pushed the side up to a respectable ninth position in the table, which would be their best showing for six seasons should they maintain it for the duration of the season.
The future of football in the city, though, is in the balance, with some interesting developments afoot. The city’s mayor has this year pledged his full support to a local citizen team to kick off in 2011. Such a move would certainly offer a lifeline to the beautiful game in Gwangju. Sure, they would be able to sign overseas players (although many argue that those willing to ply their trade in Korea are only doing so because they couldn’t cut the mustard elsewhere and are looking to make a quick buck), but the consequences run much deeper than this. One of the cornerstones of creating a solid fanbase is loyalty; amongst both fans and staff. With the current system, players can play a maximum of two years with Gwangju Sangmu before returning to their “parent clubs”. With an independent team, they could nurture their own youth players, cultivate cult heroes and produce players synonymous with the Gwangju brand: a feat that is impossible in their current guise. How gutting it must be for regular followers of the side to watch their best players getting shipped off season after season.
Player allegiance is another issue that could be rectified. It is a timeworn fact that players perform better where they are wanted and where they have chosen to be. Having been plucked from such an environment and placed in the line-up of the country’s military team, their performance levels are liable to drop. If Gwangju wish to be truly competitive in the K-League, the creation of an independent side is a necessity. And hopefully then the World Cup Stadium won’t cut the lonely figure of a white elephant on the Sangmu horizon.