The Soul of Seoul: My K League 1 Experience
Over the past couple weeks, I had the great fortune of travelling to China and South Korea. During what was my first experience of the Asia-Pacific region, I naturally had to explore the local sports scene. I was able to do just that during my group’s free day in the South Korean capital of Seoul on March 16th, as we headed over to the city’s west side to take in a K League 1 fixture between hometown FC Seoul and Jeju United FC at the Seoul World Cup Stadium.
Here are some of my takeaways from my first football adventure abroad:
The Club and Fan Support
I was initially concerned when I learned that the match would take place at the near-67,000 seat World Cup Stadium. While it would certainly be an amazing experience to visit the stadium that served as a central point for one of the greatest period’s in the country’s sports history, South Korea’s dream run to the 2002 FIFA World Cup Semi-finals, I expected that the stadium may feel cavernous while hosting a crowd well below capacity.
I was wrong. A positive of going to a match with a well-below capacity crowd of roughly 15,000 meant that we were able to be right in the heart of the action. We chose to sit in the supporter’s section, and it was there I was able to feel the passion of the local fans as they chanted throughout the match and hung on to every moment. I could feel the optimism and renewed energy of the home supporters following FC Seoul’s 2-0 start to 2019 following a dreadful 2018 that saw one of South Korea’s most prestigious clubs come one loss away from being relegated to the second division.
Their 11th place finish in the league was the worst in the franchise’s 36-year history, one that has included six league titles, two FA cups, and a runner-up finish in the 2013 AFC Champions League. They were forced into a promotion playoff with Busan, winners of the K League 2 playoff. Seoul survived on a 4-2 aggregate score over two legs and have seemingly regrouped to return to top form in 2019 to the relief and joy of the fans.
I found that FC Seoul provide a very affordable and fan-friendly experience. Tickets cost us 14,000 Korean Won ($15 CAD) and without any controls, our group of 15 was able to sit anywhere we wanted in the stadium despite having paid for the lowest cost ticket.
Tall boys cost about $3 CAD, something you would never find at any sporting event in Canada (great concept though – teams should be paying attention!). The food was awesome, a mixture of stadium food you might expect to find in North America along with local cuisine you would find at street vendor stalls in the middle of Seoul.
As an English-speaker, finding anything you needed was no problem at all. Many staff spoke enough English to get by, and there was just as much English signage around the Stadium as there was Korean. It was a very foreigner-friendly environment, most likely due to the fact that the actual World Cup Stadium was created with the purpose of welcoming fans from around the world to South Korea in 2002.
Really interesting, and a big positive for me in comparison to the craze of Toronto, was the simplicity of public transit around the Stadium. A subway stop was located right at the bottom of the Stadium’s front steps, and the effectiveness of Seoul’s subway system meant that you could get anywhere in the city you wished within 30 minutes without any of the ridiculous crowds that you might find on the TTC after a Blue Jays game or something of that nature. In addition, buses and taxis are very frequent and have easy access right up to the front of the Stadium.
Having not followed Asian club football at any point, I was unsure of the caliber of play we were going to witness at the match. Despite a 0-0 final score, I found the game to be played in a wide-open manner, similar to MLS. The pace was solid, with the match very rarely lacking entertaining action as the two teams got up and down the pitch with relative ease. In my opinion, the defending was quite poor at times, most noticeably on set plays. There were several moments when I couldn’t believe that certain players went unmarked off set plays, it seemed as if both teams were consistently playing with fire. Was very surprised that we got to the final whistle scoreless, although from what I know that is a rarity in the K League.
Internationals don’t seem to have as much influence in Korea. Looking at FC Seoul for example, the team currently has two internationals on the squad. The most notable is Serbian striker Aleksandar Pesic, on loan from Saudi Arabia, has one cap for the Serbian national team and is most notable for his time at Red Star Belgrade, whom he scored 25 goals with.
Overall, I see many parallels to MLS. The majority of the players are domestic, with a few internationals that can sometimes steal the spotlight similar to designated players in MLS. K League salaries average about $175,000 USD, which although lower than the average MLS salary, is $60,000 higher than the MLS median, which hints at the enormous parity between earnings of MLS designated players such as Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.