Sunday, 10 November 2013

A British History of South Korean Football

At the end of 1999, when I left behind a dull post-university job and my Newcastle United season ticket and moved to Daejeon, South Korea, to teach English as a Foreign Language, foreign supporters of K-League clubs were still thin enough on the ground to merit inclusion in the matchday programme. On the pitch, the imports came from other Asian countries,  Latin America, Africa or Eastern Europe: Daejeon had only the Senagalese defender Papa Oumar Coly until midway through the 2001 season, when an out-of-condition striker arrived from the Saudi club Al-Ittihad.  "You know At-kin-son?" a student asked, giving equal precedence to each of the three syllables.  "Aston Villa and Ipswich."   A striker once capable of doing this had just signed for a cash-strapped provincial South Korean football team.  It was all a bit like Kevin Keegan joining Newcastle United - except King Kev wasn't  stuck in communal accommodation, reduced to hiring 'Charlie's Angels' from his local video store in a vain bid to pass the time,or loaned out to Jeonbuk Motors after labouring his way through three largely forgettable games.  Aside from our shared knowledge of the city's less exciting suburbs and the fact that neither of us was in any fit shape to last a full 90 minutes, Dalian and I were both minor - in my case incredibly minor and consisting of once being mistaken for a player while out shopping in a Daejeon home shirt  - parts in a Korean-British footballing exchange that had lasted at least a hundred years...

Koreans had been kicking balls around for more than a thousand years before a team representing the southern part of the peninsula arrived in London for the 1948 Summer Olympic Games.  On August 2nd, in front of 6,500 fans at Dulwich Hamlet, a fledgling Republic of Korea team beat Mexico 5-3, advancing to a second-game rout at Selhurst Park in which eventual gold medallists Sweden scored twelve without reply in a one-sided quarter-final victory. Sixty-four years on, a crowd approximately ten times bigger than the one at Crystal Palace saw South Korea eliminate the host nation on penalty kicks in the 2012 Games.  Although Brazil cantered to a 3-0 victory in a semi-final played at Old Trafford, the Koreans deservedly took bronze by defeating Japan, Arsenal’s Park Chu-yeong hitting the first of his side's two goals.  “Korean football, which surprised the world…by reaching the semi-final of the 2002 World Cup, has opened a new chapter in its history by winning its first-ever Olympic medal,” reported the English edition of the Chosun Ilbo.

Depending on which version of the tale you believe, the modern game of association football was first played on the Korean peninsula in either 1882 or 1896.  What nobody disputes is that it was brought there by the British. In June 1882 the HMS Flying Fish docked at Incheon while Vice Admiral Willis, commanding officer of the China station, met representatives of King Gojong to conclude a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between the two nations.  The crew, under orders not to leave the ship, found the deck too narrow to play football on and so moved their game to a neighbouring pier, where a small crowd of children hesitantly gathered to watch.  When the Flying Fish sailed for China, two leather football footballs were left behind.  Their legacy, if true, proved more enduring than Willis’s treaty, which was re-negotiated, on much more favourable terms to the European power, the following year.

 The country's first officially documented kickabout was contested by Korean students at Seoul’s Royal English School in November 1896. “The boys go at it with…vim and earnestness,” reported a correspondent for the English-language newspaper The Independent, “chasing after the leather sphere…as if their lives depended on the game.”  Six months later, sailors from HMS Narcissis lost by a single goal to an RES team featuring a mix of Koreans and their British teachers. The match was “well fought”, The Independent noted, praising one of the home players for an exhibition of skill which “would not have disgraced an English public schoolboy”.  A rematch, held on December 16th 1897,  saw the hosts win 6-2 in front of a “considerable” crowd.  “The most prominent feature of the game,” thought The Independent, “was the plucky way in which the Koreans tackled their stronger and heavier opponents.”  

Tokyo's annexation of Korea in 1910, tacitly supported by the British as part of the earlier Anglo-Japanese Alliance,  signalled the ending of diplomatic ties until the eve of the Korean War in 1949.  It took another two decades before footballing links were similarly restored,  Middlesex Wanderers, founded to "promote good fellowship among football clubs and other sporting organisations throughout the world", and featuring amateur players from clubs such as St Albans and Oxford City, defeating the South Korean national side 2-1 at Seoul's Hochang Stadium.  It was the first of five visits by the touring club, culminating in a 6-1 defeat by the country's U23 team during the 1977 President's Cup.   Among the goalscorers in that last game was Cha Bum-kun,  Korean football's first export to European football when he moved to the Bundesliga the following year. His son, Cha Du-ri. would later forge a career of his own, going on to lift the Scottish Cup and Premier League during a two-season spell at Glasgow Celtic.

The arrival of the younger Cha and his title-winning compatriot Ki Sung-yeung at Parkhead was another link in a sporting exchange which began with Dundee United's journey to Seoul for a 1971 pre-season tour.  "It was regarded as missionary work (but)...they found the standard of football higher than had been anticipated", is the Scottish side's laconic assessment of a three-game tour which saw two single-goal victories and a 3-3 draw with the national team, who subsequently lost twice to Coventry City at Seoul's Dongdaemun Stadium the following year.  In 1976, League Cup holders Manchester City played in Busan and Daegu, winning both games by three goals to nil, while a Byun Byung-joo strike proved no more than a consolation in a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal at the 1990 Caltex Cup in Singapore.  Kilmarnock's 1995 visit was significantly more fruitful, the understrength Scottish side and their six travelling supporters going down 5-1 in what was their third Korea Cup game in just five days. 

The Ayshire side did only marginally worse than the experimental Scotland team Berti Vogts' sent out at Busan just two weeks before the 2002 World Cup finals.  On a sultry May evening, an "infinitely superior" South Korean eleven put four goals past Neil Sullivan in the Scottish goal.  Five days later, at Seogwipo's World Cup Stadium, future Manchester United and QPR player Park Ji-sung equalised Michael Owen's opener in what The Guardian derided as "a one-dimensional performance... of launch 'n' leap football" from Sven-Goran Erikkson's side.

Discounting friendlies and games involving members of the Royal Navy, Owen's 26th minute goal was the second scored by an English forward in South Korea.  The aforementioned Dalian Atkinson - recipient of Match of the Day's Goal of the Season award in 1992-93 - having scrambled in a single effort while sporting the redcurrant colours of Daejeon. "I've still got it and the more I play the better I will get," Atkinson had said on his arrival in the country, but he was overweight, depressed and hopelessly out-of-form.  After eight appearances for two clubs, he announced his retirement from football at the age of 33.

Ian Porterfield enjoyed an equally inauspicous arrival, the Scotsman turning to some familiar faces as he sought to rebuild an ailing Busan team which had won just six games and finished next to bottom of the 2002 K-League season.  Assisted first by former Aberdeen stalwart Drew Jarvie and later by ex-Swindon Town boss Tom Jones, Porterfield snapped up Jamie Cureton and Andy Cooke, the two Englishmen forming a short-lived striking partnership that ended when Cureton returned home after four goals in twenty-one games. "I wasn't happy in Korea," he explained. "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".  Cooke stayed on, contributing thirteen goals and almost as many yellow cards as Busan finished ninth in 2003.   Porterfield added Chris Marsden, an FA Cup finalist with Southampton the previous year, in time for the 2004 season, but after two games and one goal the midfielder departed for Sheffield Wednesday.  That left only Cooke, whose six strikes helped the south coast team to a seventh-place finish and the Korean Cup. "With our budget that was like winning the Scottish Premier with Dunfermline Athletic," Porterfield said after his team beat Bucheon in a Christmas Day final.  Homesickness meant Cooke soon returned to Britain.  “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."   A fourth English striker, the nomadic ex-Newcastle United junior Richard Offiong, later wound up at Chunnam Dragons only to find the prospect of Saturday afternoons in Doncaster more enticing after just one game.  When Porterfield himself left in 2006 to take up an offer with the Armenian national side, British football's brush with East Asia's oldest professional league had come to an end.

Nonetheless, other contacts remain.  In 2005, Premier League champions Chelsea, sponsored by the Seoul-based conglomerate Samsung, became England's first top-flight visitors since Manchester City, beating Suwon Samsung Bluewings 1-0 on a pre-season tour.   Spurs, Bolton Wanderers, Reading and Sunderland all travelled to the peninsula to take part in the Unification Church-organised Peace Cup, forming or solidifying links that has seen the likes of Lee Young-pyo, Seoul Ki-Hyeon,  Lee Chung-yong and Ji Dong-won plying their trade in the Premier League.  Outside the top-flight the transfer process hasn't been entirely one-sided: Bucheon, beaten finalists when Ian Porterfield's Busan lifted the Korean FA Cup had temporarily vanished from the footballing map when their owners, SK Energy, decided to relocate the team to Seogwipo's underused stadium on a volcanic island three hundred miles south of their former home.  Inspired in part by the example of AFC Wimbledon, Bucheon's abandoned fans started their own club.  In 2009, over a century after the British first played in Korea, FC United of Manchester went down 3-0 in front of a crowd of 23,000 at Bucheon Sports Complex.  The wheel had come full circle.