International football? Son Heung Min braces? All this will pale into insignificance come mid-week as the 2017 K-League Playoffs begin with Asan Mugunghwa FC welcoming Seongnam FC to town to see who has the pleasure of travelling to the Gudeok Stadium on Saturday to face runners-up and FA Cup finalists Busan FC. It’s been a long season for both teams and after an incredibly tense last round of fixtures it was Asan who secured 3rd place in the league with Seongnam securing the final spot as they claimed fourth. The playoffs have thrown up some fantastic matches of late such as Gwangju humbling Gyeongnam, the 3-3 Battle of Suwon and of course last year’s Tears in Tancheon as Seongnam were relegated….what will this year give us?
Seongnam’s Journey Back – Week 3 – The Flag Wars Return
Last year the clashes between Seongnam and Suwon FC were billed as ‘The Flag Wars’ as both mayors held their own private competition which would see the victor get to fly their “colours” at the other’s stadium, it’s safe to say that this was a bet that Seongnam’s Lee Jae Myung probably didn’t see himself losing once never mind twice across the year. We often hear the term “bogey team” get banded about in football but in fairness last year Suwon put the knife into Seongnam on more than one occasion and given the fact that only one of those four fixtures took place in Suwon it was tough for the boys in black to take. This weekend will see the first of a double-header as Seongnam welcome Suwon to town in the Challenge before meeting them again in the FA Cup 3rd Round on March 29th, also at Tancheon. Given how Seongnam have started their first year in the 2nd Division those two matches are already looking like season-defining moments.
Seongnam’s Journey Back – Week 2 – Clash of the Citizens
So it’s safe to say that week one of Seongnam’s journey back to the Classic didn’t quite go according to plan as one flash of Lee Jeong Hyeop accompanied by one flash from Hwang Uijo’s 50p shaped head meant that all the marketing in the world couldn’t stop the boys in black from falling to a disastrous first week defeat. It was billed as a top of the table clash but in reality it unfortunately had the look and feel of two teams far disconnected from their previous glories with those eleven titles between them looking as hazy as the morning after a Halla-San Soju-fest. Seongnam’s new coach, Park Kyung Hoon, has publicly taken the blame for the defeat citing both tactical errors and an injury list longer than an Itaewon McDonald’s queue. He will need to right the former rather quickly if he wants to remain in the black hotseat until December.
And so it is that after the perils of Pohang, the torment of the final day at Tancheon and a close season that seems to have lasted forever, Seongnam FC will begin their campaign to reclaim their spot at the top table in the K-League Classic. Regarded by many as favorites to ‘bounce back up’ they will start their Challenge campaign against most people’s other favorite, Busan, in what should be a real test for both teams and what will hopefully be a cracking match for fans and neutrals alike. The Challenge this year is shaping up to be every bit as competitive as the Classic as also alongside Seongnam and Busan we have the likes of Suwon FC, Daejeon and Gyeongnam all hoping to clinch the golden ticket to the Classic.
At 3pm on Sunday two teams will clash in the final 90 mins of the 2016 K-League season as Seongnam FC and Gangwon FC face off in the playoff second leg at Tancheon. The match is perfectly poised after a rather tepid and oftentimes boring first leg finished 0-0 on Thursday past. With all to play for hopefully this match will serve us up a battle to last long in the memory.
K-League Playoff Final 2nd Leg Preview
Seongnam FC v Gangwon FC
Seongnam will host the K-League Challenge’s Gangwon in the final match of this year’s K-League season in a game which will decide which team gets the final place in the Classic for 2017. The sight of Seongnam in the playoffs is something that even the most pessimistic among their support could not have foreseen. They had an awful run of form toward the end of the season which saw them plummet from potential ACL participants to the playoffs. They have only the one win in their last fifteen or so games including last week’s bore draw but more worryingly for the Tancheon die-hard is the fact they’ve only found the net once in the last six matches and that was from the spot in a 2-1 loss to Suwon FC. Too many key players have failed to perform for them in key matches and if they once again fail to turn up in the final it could be a miserable day for those in black.
Gangwon are a team playing with confidence having won both of their playoff games vs. Busan and then Bucheon 1995. They didn’t have a great end to the season and lost a few games in the final push for the playoffs although interestingly they lost to both Busan and Bucheon in the league before overcoming them in the playoffs which could be ominous for Seongnam. They boast a good group of foreign players and as was witnessed from the 1st leg they are not afraid to get down and dirty if the occasion calls.
Pitu – There is no denying the class that Seongnam’s Argentinian number 26 possesses. He has an incredible eye for a pass, can score and is pretty deadly from set-pieces. He’s been off the boil since Kim Hak Bum left the club and has been used sparingly under the caretaker manager. He played in the 1st leg but winded himself in a challenge with the goalkeeper and limped off the pitch but should recover in time to take his place at Tancheon. If he plays there are fewer more influential midfielders in Korea and he could just be the man to pull the strings of probably Seongnam’s most important 90 mins of the last few seasons.
Luiz – The Brazilian midfielder raised quite a few eyebrows during the summer transfer window when he stepped down a division from Jeonbuk, albeit on loan. This was a move which seemed to have been engineered to allow Edu to make his return to Jeonju. He’s repaid his loan deal notching up seven goals for the club and while that sounds like a meagre return it’s his experience and overall presence on the pitch which has elevated him to a key player. Having lifted no less than three K-League Classic titles during his time in Korea he knows what it takes to win big matches and is unlikely to be phased by this one. If he plays on the day he has all the skill to cause Seongnam problems.
Prediction: It will be a cagey affair with so much at stake and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if extra time is needed to separate them. Seongnam 2 – Gangwon 1 (potentially taking 120 mins to decide it)
2015 was going to be the year that witnessed the return of Seongnam FC to their old stomping ground of the ACL. It was a year in which Seongnam cut all ties with previous incarnations and shelved the ‘traditional’ yellow kit in favour of an all black number. It was going to be a year of stability on the pitch built by the rock-like figure of Kim Hak Bum in his first full season in charge after answering their SOS call at the end of 2014. It also saw the return of prodigal son Kim Do Heon, who was welcomed back into the Seongnam family much like an ESL teacher returning home for their first Christmas vacation. With all these factors in play it was always going to be a season to look forward to for the much maligned fans from Yatap. Would it prove to be successful or would it all end up being as big a letdown as an all you can eat buffet in Seven Springs?
The Asian Champions League Campaign
It had been 2012 since Seongnam had last graced the ACL in a campaign in which they fell in the last 16 at home to Uzbek champions Bunyodkor. 2 years might not seem a long time for most clubs but given Seongnam’s dominance in the K-League in the early 2000’s it had been given a little more significance. They had qualified for this year’s tournament courtesy of winning the FA Cup via a penalty shootout over FC Seoul and thus had become the first ‘citizens’ club to represent Korea in the tournament. Not much was made of their chances before the draw was made and those slim hopes became even slimmer when they were paired up with the Japanese and Thai champions in Gamba Osaka and Buriram and also Guangzhou R&F (Evergrande’s poor cousins). The campaign did not start well as they succumbed to a 2-1 defeat in Thailand in a match best (or worst depending on your point of view) remembered for some horrendous defending from the visitors. It was a game which was met with some unwarranted, and at times over the top, criticism for Kim Hak Bum’s men although this might just have spurred them on to prove everyone wrong.
The group stages would go on to be a success for the club as “Fortress Tancheon” rightly earned its moniker with Seongnam defeating both Gamba and Buriram either side of a 0-0 draw with R&F. It was this home form plus a rather unexpected away victory in China that resulted in them being the first Korean team to qualify from the group stages. An away defeat in Japan didn’t dampen the spirits of the Seongnam faithful who were beginning to believe they could defeat anyone on their home turf.
That late defeat in Japan had set them up with a mouth-watering knockout stage clash against the big-spenders of Evergrande. It was a huge task to expect them to defeat a team which boasted an array of ‘superstars’ and was managed by Fabio Cannavaro. The first leg was in Tancheon and was probably one of the best atmospheres that I have experienced in Korea as Kim Do Heon’s last minute penalty hit the back of the net to give the home side a 2-1 lead going to China. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough and Evergrande ran out 2-0 winners at home to win 3-2 on aggregate. Seongnam may have been out but they had proven a lot of people wrong and earned a few more fans along the way. Evergrande would eventually go on to win the final without losing another match which again highlighted just how huge that victory at Tancheon was.
Overall tournament rating : 10/10
The K-League Classic Campaign
2014 had been something of a ‘annus horribilis’ for Seongnam. They had managed to go through managers quicker than I go through bottles of Soju in a tent in Yeoudio of a Friday evening. Kim Hak Bum had come in at the tail end of the season in a desperate attempt to both steady the ship and ultimately preserve their K-League Classic status which was perilously close to being snatched from them. Nobody really knew what 2015 would have in store for Seongnam and indeed probably even the most optimistic of fans wouldn’t have predicted any form of success. The season started with a trip to Jeonbuk and a defeat at the hands of the team most were picking for the champions before a ball was kicked. Things soon started looking up for Seongnam though and they spent most of the first twenty or so matches in and around 5th~7th. The league was so tight though that any slip ups and they could end up as low as 10th. In the final half of the season Seongnam ensured their place in the Championship Group after the split with some huge victories. They had performed well against the so called “big” teams and in fact you wonder that even if Ulsan hadn’t had a nightmare middle of the season would it have been Seoul or Jeju making way for them instead of Seongnam.
Unfortunately for Seongnam fans if the middle of the season had seen them reach such highs as away victories over Incheon, Suwon and the hoodoo breaking Seoul victory it was to be the final straight of the season that would bring them heartbreak. Having made the Championship Group (and in fairness looking one of the better sides in it) they then shot themselves in the foot and tearjerkingly fell out of the ACL spots and finished 5th. As Adriano was wheeling away in celebration after netting Seoul’s last gasp winner in a match that Seongnam should have put to bed you got the sinking feeling that it was all going to unravel quicker than a pair of Calvin Klein boxers bought on Itaewon Main St. Three draws in a row quickly brought any dreams of another year in the ACL to a shuddering halt and left the fans with a real feeling that they had been pick pocketed. Suwon were not a great team, Seoul were inconsistent and really only Pohang had shown over the season that they deserved to finish above the boys in black. Finishing a season that at one point had promised so much with nothing to show was a tough one to swallow, even for the most pessimistic of fans. They did rally and win the final game of the season, a 2-1 home victory over Jeju but in the end it was a season that promised everything and delivered nothing much like a blind date in Jongno.
Overall tournament rating 8/10
The FA Cup
Over the years Kim Hak Bum has molded a reputation as being a bit of a cup expert with last year’s FA Cup success cementing the idea although this in turn seemed to heap huge expectation on his shoulders of a repeat success in 2015. The draw for the last sixteen matched Seongnam against Yeungnam University in a repeat of the 2014 Quarter-final which Seongnam had won 2-1. It would take a similar scoreline again to see the boys from Tancheon progress to the last 8 although this time those plucky university boys took their top-league rivals to extra time. It was not a great performance from Seongnam and as the fans made their way back to the subway amidst the news that Ulsan at home were next up there weren’t too many happy faces.
The pessimism on that June evening after the Yeungnam match was to be justified when at the end of July Ulsan sent Seongnam crashing out the cup. Again the match went to extra time after former player Kim Tae Hwan had opened the scoring only to be cancelled out by the ever-improving Hwang Uijo. In the end it took a world class strike from Ulsan’s Croatian midfielder, Ivan Kovacec, to separate the teams. Losing a match to Ulsan wouldn’t normally spark the wailing and gnashing of teeth normally reserved for losing 5-1 to your rival but considering the horrendous season Ulsan were having at this point it was a match that could have and should have been a Seongnam victory.
And so it was all over, there would be no repeat of the scenes at Seoul World Cup Stadium when Park Jin Po lifted the FA cup into the Seongnam fans, no more would the trophy sit in Yatap Station. (still can never imagine this happening in Glasgow) In truth it was a poor defence of the trophy by Kim’s men and something the Seongnam masses wanted to forget quickly.
Overall tournament Rating 4/10
If all eyes were fixed on the return of Kim Do Heon it was a player already in the squad who was going to make all the headlines and then some. Hwang Uijo had been regarded as something of a ‘super sub’ in 2014, making only 13 starts with 15 cameo roles from the bench but 2015 would go on to become something of the “Wee Joe Show”. Goals in the K-League Classic (15) were supported by a goal in each round of the FA Cup (3), plus 2 goals in the ACL Group Stages. He was fast becoming one of the most talked about strikers in Korea and along with Joo Min Kyu at Seoul E-land was being hotly for a National Team call up. Initially Uli Stielike seemed to be oblivious to Hwang’s goal-scoring exploits and continued to overlook him for squads. He eventually did enough to catch the German’s eye and made his international debut against Laos in a ridiculously one-sided World Cup qualifier. It wouldn’t take him long to break his international duck and so it was that he scored in mid-October in a friendly match against Jamaica. The only way is up for Uijo and it is no surprise that speculation linking him with moves overseas are growing pace. He has an amazing eye for goal and although frustratingly selfish at times if he can work on this side of his game I have no doubts he’ll go on to be a wholesale name outside of Korea….but hopefully not for a few years yet!!
And so there you have it, Seongnam Fc 2015 all neatly reviewed and wrapped-up. It was a season with more twists and turns than a Donegal country road, more ups and downs than a KBS drama. It brought moments like Kim Do Heon’s winning penalty against the richest team in Asia, Nam Jun Jae slaying Suwon in the Big Bird and breaking the Seoul World Cup Stadium hoodoo with that amazing strike from Park Yong Ji. It unfortunately vomited up moments like Adriano’s last -gasp winner at Tancheon, a hugely controversial penalty for Jeonbuk’s very own ‘Diving with the Stars’ Lee Dong Gook and of course coming so close to the ACL next year and throwing it away. But when all is said and done it was a good year, it took me to Osaka, let me sing in a monsoon in Incheon and there might just have been a beer or two consumed along the way.
It was the last round of the ACL group stages and Seongnam were already through, needing only a point to secure top spot and a potential last 16 clash against FC Seoul, but still I decided to throw my Seongnam scarf and a few t-shirts in a bag and make the short trip to Osaka.
I booked in for three days in total fully intending on sampling all Osaka had to offer, by roughly 3pm on the first day it became obvious my sight-seeing was going to be restricted to Sake bars and sashimi restaurants.
I have a friend in Osaka and quickly after dropping off my bag at the amazingly cheap yet centrally located Toyoko Inn in Noda I made my way to Osaka Castle to meet him. It didn’t take long to realize that my friend hadn’t quite planned a tour of historical sites and museums to satisfy my hunger for cultural immersion.Within an hour I was on my third Mexican beer, second plate of Peruvian meat and just about keeping away from the Tequila tent, yes I was indeed at a pretty huge Latin American festival. A few Portuguese-Brazilian bands later and it was time to head back to Noda for a quick change and out to find some ‘raw fish’.
After dinner it was time to find a bar and hopefully settle down to watch Kashima Antlers take on FC Seoul, unfortunately Japan seems to have even less interest in televising football than Korea and I had to settle for watching text updates on Naver.com. The one of advantage of this was that at least I got to “see” Molina score Seoul’s third, and winning, goal. Apparently SBS lost the stream and nobody back in Korea was able to watch as Seoul grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat and secured their place in the next round.
A few more of Japan’s finest watering holes were visited before a trip back towards Noda and then the bright idea of “one for the road”. This took me into a rather dodgy area, if Osaka has such, and the confines of a small but cozy bar. It’s amazing how confident alcohol can make you and it wasn’t long before I was conversing with the locals like I had spent my youth there. The sober truth is that “Shunsuke Nakamura, yeah”, “Ki Seung Yeung, yeah”, “Celtic, Seongnam” is probably not going to get me on Japan’s Got Talent anytime soon.
Wednesday woke me up with all the subtlety of being awakened by a group of circus clowns bouncing on my bed. Of course today was a long day and as a veteran of long away days I knew just how best to approach this one. Coffee, followed by some fruit and cereal and then a long walk to clear the head and a constant supply of Gatorade was in order. My friend, Keunseok, unfortunately had different ideas and met me at Nipombashi station with a can of Yebisu Beer in hand and so it began.
The day was one of more raw fish and beer with the occasional meeting up with fellow Seongnam fans. We made our way to the stadium around 4pm, it is quite a hike. Gamba play in the Osaka Expo ’70 Stadium which is on the Osaka Monorail. It isn’t the easiest of places to find and I was really glad that my friend speaks Japanese as otherwise I might still be aimlessly wandering the subway system trying to find it.
We arrived pretty early at the stadium which gave us plenty of time to get tickets and have a look around the impressive array of food tents on the way to the ground itself. On the way to the stadium I bumped into @JSoccerMagazine who helped us secure a couple of tickets for the Seongnam end. And so with our bounty intact we headed back down to the tents and one final Asahi and a pretty amazing Bacon Quarterpounder (at least I think that’s what it was).
After the culinary delights of the tents had been exhausted we began to make our way back towards the stadium for what we hoped would be both a night of good football and success for Seongnam, unfortunately the two seem to be mutually exclusive at times. Walking back up to the ground it became obvious that there were quite a few Seongnam fans in attendance, in fact by my guess more than had made the subway trip to Seoul World Cup Stadium only a few days earlier.
Once inside the stadium we got settled originally in the best vantage point we could find but then decided to go down in among the singing and dancing group of black t-shirts that made up the main section of the Seongnam support. Just like at Sangnam the group leaders did a fantastic job of keeping the energy level up and the songs flowing, even at one point convincing me to attempt the lead a chorus of the ‘Seongnam Kapo’.
The game started well with both teams testing and pressing their opponents, Seongnam had done this to perfection in the home tie and looked to have opted for a similar tactic again in Japan. Although moving to join the main group of fans had improved my atmosphere at the match it has basically destroyed my view. Apart from being level with the pitch, throw in a running track and my not exactly eagle-eye vision and basically I could have seen as much from my hotel room. And so it was that when the ‘Slayer of Gamba’, Hwang Uijo, crashed an unstoppable effort into the net on 15 mins I had missed the goal. So much so that an AFC video showing the best 10 goals of the group stages does actually have a clip of the Seongnam crowd with me asking my friend who scored. The rest of the half was played out with both teams continuing to nullify each other for the most part. HT came and it was Seongnam who went in 1-0 up and looked like they had top spot secured. For being the J-League champions I haven’t been impressed with Gamba in the two matches I’ve seen and I definitely think FC Seoul are in with a decent chance of putting them out.
The second half was pretty much as we expected, Seongnam sat back to soak up and hit on the break and Gamba became desperate, knowing that a draw could dent their hopes of seeing the next round. They pulled one back on 65 mins through Usami and then with time running out and everyone in black getting ready to celebrate winning the group Gamba’s Brazilian Lins slotted the ball away and rounded off the scoring. I was a little disappointed to say the least at FT as having led for so long it was a bitter pill to swallow to see us throw it away. But as my friend said we are in the last 16 and now have to get ready for the giants of Guangzhou Evergrande who visit Tancheon first on May 20th.
After the match we parted company and I decided to sample some more of what Noda had to offer, an incredible mouth-burning Coco Curry, I should have listened to the waitress when she said it was spicy, was followed up by another trip to the previous night’s Sake bar to help promote Scottish relations.
The trip was amazing, it was everything that I hoped it would be and probably more. The result aside the match was amazing. Japanese fans are incredibly passionate about supporting their teams and their Ultras are pretty impressive both in numbers and noise. The Seongnam fans did their team proud and it was amazing to be in the middle of their support winning, drawing and even losing.
The news that all four Korean teams made it through to the last 16 is fantastic and looking at the fixtures you would have to imagine there could be at least one all-Korean match in the next round. Here’s hoping Seongnam are there although after this experience I kind of hope there is one more away day to go to.