Saturday, 1 January 2011

Places I Have Been: Busan I'Park

One of the K-League's six founding clubs, Busan was also the first Korean football team I ever saw play. It was March 2000 and Ahn Jung-hwan, on the verge of an ill-fated loan move to Perugia, was still their undisputed star. "Just like David Beckham," Koreans used to insist, though Ahn's subsequent career trajectory suggested Bentley may have been a better choice of surname. Busan won easily, but then teams usually did when they played against Daejon.

For as long as they belonged to Daewoo - at one time Korea's second largest conglomerate, manufacturing everything from cars and container ships to toasters and toothpaste - Busan were among the best teams in the league. Pipped to the post by Hallelujah FC in 1983's inaugural K-League season, they won three of the next eight titles, beat Egypt's Al-Ahly to lift the 1986 Asian Club Championship and, inspired by ex-Red Star Belgrade forward Saša Drakulić, added an Adidas Cup to their fourth K-League triumph in 1997.

Not the last time I'd see Daejeon lose to Busan.

But then Daewoo went bankrupt, company founder Kim Woo-chong took an extended holiday in France with $3.2 billion he'd borrowed from the till, and in the chaos that followed Busan were acquired (rather appropriately given the circumstances) by I-Con, a construction company belonging to the Hyundai Group. For both Kim and Busan, the glory years were over.

Since 1997, thirteen different coaches have tried, and failed, to emulate Lee Cha-man's title-winning team. Ex-Swiss international Andy Egli lasted one season before resigning due to "differences with the management of the club". His replacement, Park Seong-hwa, departed for the Korean Olympic side after fifteen days and just one match in charge. Hwang Sun-hong, scorer of Korea's first goal of the 2002 World Cup, stayed for three years, tempted Ahn Jung-hwan back for nineteen games, and took the club to the Korean FA Cup Final earlier this year. But none could match the achievements of the man Egli had replaced.

Ian Porterfield arrived in November 2002, at the end of a season in which Busan had won just six games and finished second bottom of the league. Korean international Song Chong-gug had already left for Feyenoord and the club's owners, having agreed to move into the 54,000-capacity Busan Asiad Stadium, were now threatening to relocate to Seoul after the council refused to let Porterfield's team train on the pitch. "My wife called me and was really worried, she said: 'We are moving to Seoul, it's all over TV.' In all honesty it was a good marketing exercise," the Scot told Soccerphile's John Duerden.

The Busan Asiad Stadium during the 2002 Asian Games.
It didn't get much busier when Busan played at home.

Porterfield brought in ex-Aberdeen and Airdrie player Drew Jarvie as assistant and used some of the Feyenoord money to rebuild his team. Jamie Cureton arrived on a free transfer from Reading, soon followed by Stoke City's Andy Cooke and Forest's Norwegian defender Jon Olav Hjelde. "Apparently it's very good money out there – and it's tax free," explained Preston boss Craig Brown when North End's Colin Murdock flew out to Korea for talks. But Murdock, like Reading's Martin Butler, turned Porterfield down, signing for Hibernian instead.

Cureton soon wished he'd done the same. After four goals in twenty-one games a group of QPR fans helped to raise the £100,000 needed to take him back to the English First Division. "Curo just does not like the lifestyle out there and he's struggled with the language," his agent explained, "so the club have agreed to terminate his contract a year early." "I wasn't happy in Korea," Cureton said on his return to England. "Within the first month I realised I was not getting what I wanted out of football, with the language barrier to overcome and the fact the build up to games was so low-key. The crowds were small and there wasn't the same buzz you get over here".

Hjelde suffered too, playing sixteen games in a year before rejoining Joe Kinnear at Nottingham Forest. "I don’t know what sort of football they play in Korea," said Kinnear, "but you could tell he’d not been playing in England." Despite thirteen goals (and almost as many yellow cards) from Cooke, Busan finished ninth in 2003, losing almost half of their forty-four games.

Undeterred, Porterfield signed Chris Marsden, who'd captained Southampton in the previous year's FA Cup Final. Marsden scored the opening goal of the 2004 K-League season, but walked out on Busan a single game, one unhappy wife and £136,000 of Sheffield Wednesday's money later. "I'm sad and disappointed," Porterfield said. "I'd have hoped that he would have waited to the end of the stage, sat down and discussed it. If that had happened, everyone would have seen it differently."

That left only Cooke, who scored another six goals as Porterfield (now assisted by ex-Swindon midfielder Tom Jones) led the side to seventh in the league. At the end of the year, to almost everyone's surprise, Busan won their first Korean FA Cup, beating Bucheon SK on penalties in a Christmas Day final. "Like winning the Scottish Premier with Dunfermline Athletic," Porterfield said.

Busan 3 Daejeon 0 at the Gudeok Stadium, a few months before Porterfield arrived.

But while things were looking better on the pitch - the team losing just a single game on their way to winning the First Stage of the 2005 K-League season - problems were mounting off it, with attendances down to just 4,000 at the Asiad Stadium. "I think that one of the reasons that we don't get good gates is that we play in the World Cup Stadium way over outside of town," Porterfield explained. "It's very difficult to get there, no train service and it takes a long time by bus." An even bigger problem was the indifference of the city's four million inhabitants: "When I first came to Busan and met people," Porterfield said, "no-one knew that there was a football team here."

Porterfield's cash-strapped team lost nine and drew three of their last twelve games to slump to tenth overall, going out of the FA Cup to non-league Ulsan Dolphin and losing 7-0 on aggregate to the Saudi team Al-Ittihad in the semi-final of the Asian Champions League. Despite the offer of a new contract, Andy Cooke had left for Bradford before the start of the season. "I thought about it," he said, "because the money was more than you could ever imagine getting here in England. But I just thought enough was enough and I wanted to get my family home. There are only so many shops and restaurants you can go around and in the evening, the highlight of our day, every day, was going for something to eat."

Porterfield and Jones followed in 2006, leaving to coach the Armenian national side. The British invasion of Korean football had come to an end.


  1. Great article. As a Reading fan, I remember Cureton heading off to Busan well - and Porterfield was a former manager of the club too. Disappointing to have one's preconceptions about footballers' attention spans when confronted with different cultures confirmed.

  2. Thanks a lot. To be fair to Cooke, there are only so many shops and restaurants you can visit in a city of four million people that's right next to the beach and a short hop from Japan.

    When Dalian Atkinson was at Daejeon, I think he spent more time in the video shop than he did on the training pitch.