Aashish Gadhvi dishes up a sporting treat for your Bank Holiday Monday.
Something is a-brewing in the world of K-League football. Think of the great club football rivalries, Man United v Liverpool, Real Madrid v Barcelona, Celtic v Rangers, AC Milan v Inter Milan, Roma v Lazio, Boca Juniors v River Plate, the list goes on! These rivalries add an extra spice to the game, and transform the sport from mere spectacle to true drama. Has this year’s K-League seen the start of another possible addition to that list? As the K-League has never been the most entertaining league in the world, well, not even in Asia, I more than welcome any kind of rivalry to spice the game up. And therefore honourable members of the jury, I present to you the case of Suwon Samsung Bluwings v FC Seoul.
First of all, let’s take a look at the accused. In the blue corner are Suwon Samsung Bluwings, the traditional powerhouses of Korean football. Although they are not as successful in the K-League as Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, they have won the AFC Champions League (Asia’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League) twice in a row – 2001 and 2002. This feat was achieved once before by a Korean club, when Pohang Steelers won the competition in 1997 and 1998. But unlike the Steelers, Suwon have not fallen from these lofty heights, and stayed a force to be reckoned with at the domestic level. In the last 10 years, Suwon have won the K-league 4 times and finished once as runners-up. To add to this, most of the cream of the crop of Korean football has at some stage passed walked the hallowed turf of Suwon’s Big Bird Stadium. Coached by South Korea’s football God – Cha Bum-kun, and backed by Korea’s most famous company Samsung, Suwon are considered by many as the face of South Korean football, and the city of Suwon is seen very much as Korea’s football city. The most passionate fans, and the best club in the land, Suwon Samsung Bluewings represents the heart of good old traditional football, grit, graft and homegrown grind.
In the red corner are the polar opposites, FC Seoul. The capitals premier football club can only be described as a ‘Rock N Roll’ team. If you need clarification on what that entails, just visit the FC Seoul website, whereupon you will be bombarded with flash media files of rock songs, flashy commercials, membership card applications and shopping pages. For an extreme example of this, please check out the club anthem ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Seoul!’ on the website for a real cracking blend of football and cheesy rock [There’s a copy of it here – Ed]. But a hyper cool persona does not make a club rock n roll. FC Seoul are a very controversial club in Korea. Turn the clock back to 1983, where the LG Company, set up the football club Lucky Goldstar Hwangso, for the early stages of the K-League. But situations change and the financial stability pressures of K-League clubs made the Lucky Goldstar franchise move, in American sports style, to Seoul. The move proved to be a stroke of genius, as Lucky Goldstar won the K-League in 1990, their first year in Seoul. But situations would once again change and the K-League in 1996 banned clubs based in Seoul, citing it as an unfair advantage, in terms of finances and crowd drawing abilities compared to the smaller provinces.
This time the team, now known as LG Cheetahs, were forced to move to Anyang. But this again would be seen as a comfortable home, and in 2000, Anyang LG Cheetahs were crowned K-League Champions. But yet again, this tale would take another twist, and this would be due to the 2002 World Cup. Once the new stadiums around the country were built, the KFA were worried about the losses which would be incurred once the World Cup was over. Originally there were plans for a brand new club to play in the Seoul World Cup Stadium, but once this idea was scrapped, LG decided to move the Cheetahs away from Anyang and back into Seoul. More than anything else this was down to financial reasons and advertising for the LG Group. Having now made Anyang their home, the club made a bittersweet move back to the city which they had previously moved from. This went down very badly with the fans of Anyang Cheetahs, who protested the move, along with many other Korean football fans. But the move still went through and in 2004, FC Seoul was born. With the mass population attending the matches and the huge financial powers behind them, FC Seoul set out to become the best team in the country.
For the past few years, the K-League’s highest attended match has always been FC Seoul v Suwon Samsung, and this year was no exception, with over 44,000 people attending the match in the capital. FC Seoul’s quest for glory culminated in them reaching the final of the K-Leauge playoffs in 2008, where they of course came up against none other than Suwon. But many saw this brewing rivalry as a renewal of old business. Back in the 90s, Samsung were becoming a global electronics company set to engulf the world, and LG were hot on their heels. This franchise rivalry was taken to the field, as the LG Anyang Cheetahs shared a bitter rivalry with, you guessed it, Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
Fast forward to December 3rd 2008, and the play off finals kick off in Seoul World Cup Stadium between the two rivals. Strangely, soccer is prone to yet another Americanism in that the top teams get put through a play off system, rather than just the top team being crowned champions. Both matches are pretty scrappy, and there is almost nothing between the two teams. The first leg ends 1-1 so both teams have everything to play for in the second leg, which crucially is in Suwon’s back yard, and the Suwon fans can really turn their stadium into a fortress when needed. No surprised then that the entire stadium was awash with noise, ticker tape and blue shirts. The match started brightly for Suwon who scored via their Brazilian striker Edu. But the odds were again evened out as veteran keeper Lee Woon Jae brought down young striker Lee Chung Yong in the box and a penalty was awarded. Striker Jung Jo Gook sent Lee Woon Jae the wrong way, slotted the goal home and put his finger to his lips to silence the Suwon crowd. But ten minutes from half time FC Seoul captain Kim Chi Gon brings down Edu in the box and a clear penalty is awarded to Suwon. Hero of World Cup 2002 Song Chong Gug steps up, the keeper saves the initial penalty but is powerless to stop the rebound goal which sends Suwon 2-1 up before half time. But this is to be the end of goals and Suwon win the 2008 K-League title with a 3-2 aggregate victory. Suwon finished the season in first position, so the right team won the league, but nothing could hide FC Seoul’s crushing disappointment. But in truly epic fashion, as the final whistle blew and the players rejoiced in their allotted emotions, snow started to fall on the stadium. The crowd was going crazy, the players in blue hugged and paraded, the players in red cried and retreated, and another year came to an end.
This was by far the most devastating encounter between the two teams in terms of what was at stake. FC Seoul thought this would be the moment that their legitimacy was cemented, but the old guard was not quite through with their stranglehold over Korean football. FC Seoul will no doubt have their time, but this sadly for them, was not theirs. Suwon meanwhile continued their dominance, but who knows what the future will bring? One waits with great anticipation for the next encounter between these bitter rivals. But one thing is for sure. The hope for all of this is that Korean football can create its own legendary rivalry. It is the most anticipated game of the year and it is the most highly covered K-League match in the Korean media. But if years from now, grandparents can tell their next in line about the legendary battle in the snow at Suwon, then the legacy which are hoping for, has truly been born. Bring on 2009.