Home while away

by David Spendley
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

Life for a foreigner in South Korea can be very confusing. This fascinating culture, with its different customs, unusual foods and an alphabet which appears more like a random amalgamation of symbols than words, can leave even the most adventurous traveler perplexed. Thank goodness then for the universal language of football. No introduction needed, translator not required.

Although attendances were up by almost 4% last year on the 2013 season, only three K-League sides maintained regular attendances of over 10,000 visitors per game, with two of those teams being capital giants Suwon Bluewings and FC Seoul. If you are an expat looking for a taste of the Beautiful Game in Korea, is it possible to enjoy a league which has a popularity that can best be described as lukewarm? Intent on battling local apathy and often sparsely inhabited World Cup stadia, the answer from many expats is a resounding “Yes!”

“Look,” insists London-born Rob Ellis, “I’ve been a season-ticket holder at Arsenal and the enjoyment I’ve had following FC Seoul is equal. The standard in play might be light-years apart but the entertainment is not. As long as you have 11 committed players on each side, the game will always appeal to me.” Rob touches on something that a number of K-League fans can agree with. Overseas visitors are given the perfect excuse to travel to cities and increase their appreciation of the nation. “There are some terrific players at FC Seoul and I’ll follow them up and down the country. I always stay for the weekend when I travel to an away game and I’ve enjoyed mini-breaks in Busan, Daejeon, and even Jeju. The truth is, I could never afford to follow Arsenal around like this.”

New Yorker and baseball lover Liam Baukham has switched sports and adopted what has  historically been the most successful team in the K-League.  “I have been following Seongnam FC, who lifted the FA Cup last year, and I watched my team being crowned Asian Champions (in 2010); that’s my highlight. I still love baseball but I’ve never got into the Korean Baseball League. I’m not sure how it happened but out here I am a soccer guy.” Asked about what he enjoys most about the experience, he points to the little differences inside stadiums; squid instead of hot dogs, K-Pop half-time entertainment, and of course the feeling that he hasn’t been financially destroyed by the end of the game.

A season ticket represents incredible value at roughly KRW 100,000 and the majority of K-League teams offer an individual match ticket for around KRW 12,000. Many clubs often lay on a cheap supporters’ bus for the away fixtures to encourage a healthy following who can roar them to victory on their travels. Factor in a few beers and a snack and you are looking at an afternoon’s entertainment for about KRW 30,000.

“My Korean friends think I am crazy,” laughs Canadian Ray Shaw who refuses to commit to a Korean team. “They ask why I would find pleasure following Korean football.” Most Korean soccer fans divide their loyalties between die-hard support for the Taeguk Warriors (the nickname for the national side) and an interest in one of the top teams in a European league. “They love the South Korean national team but apologize for the quality of their domestic game,” he continues. “The funny thing is they have never been to experience one themselves. In my opinion, the standard is high.”

Militantly choreographed banner displays, enthusiastic supporter groups who sing themselves hoarse from the first whistle to the last and, as a consequence of hosting the 2002 World Cup, unusual stadium designs, make games worth attending and with a mixture of all genders and ages in the crowd, everyone is welcome. All that’s left is to find a game.

There are a number of K-League teams in and around the capital region. FC Seoul boast large numbers of foreign supporters who are rewarded with a special foreigner day once a season, offering expatriates cheap tickets, cultural performances, and low priced food. Bitter rivals and 2014 K-League runners-up Suwon Bluewings, who have been threatening to return to their more successful years, have attracted the biggest crowds over the past two seasons at Big Bird stadium where the noise levels are fantastic. Incheon United, containing a team featuring 2002 World Cup veteran Lee Chun-soo, have seen an upturn in attendances this season whilst seven-time league champions Seongnam FC entertain small but vociferous crowds at Tancheon Stadium.

Another interesting proposition is a club in its infancy and lurking a division lower in the K-League Challenge, the newly formed Seoul E-Land FC. Using the historic Olympic Stadium as its home venue and funded by fashion and retail giant E-Land, they are looking to give fans a taste of success under Scottish manager Martin Rennie. Having assembled a mixture of promising youngsters, older pros, and exciting foreign exports, the fledgling club is well-placed to compete in the end of season promotion play-offs in its debut season.

Whichever club you follow and wherever your travels take you while following Korean football, you can be sure it will be an adventurous road of culture, curiosity, and entertainment. For both the committed and casual soccer fan, grab a scarf, buy a ticket, and prepare to feel at home.

FC Seoul: https://www.fcseoul.com/en/main/main.jsp

Suwon Bluewings: http://www.bluewings.kr/

Incheon United: http://www.incheonutd.com/

Seongnam Utd: http://seongnamfc.com/

Seoul Eland FC: http://www.seoulelandfc.com/

Groove Korea website

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