“C U @ K-League” read the famous banner unfurled by the Red Bandarqq Devils as South Korea finished in fourth place in the 2002 World Cup. The feel good factor generated by epic wins over Portugal, Italy and Spain continued into the start of the domestic season. K-League clubs enjoyed unprecedented popularity as crowds flocked to the new World Cup stadiums to watch their heroes in action.
Fast forward four years and Australia seems to be the new South Korea. The Socceroos’ performance in Germany was somewhat similar to Korea’s in 2002 and not just because of the presence of a certain Guus Hiddink. The passion, aggression, never-say-die attitude of the players and the sheer delight of the fans was enough to generate a few wistful expressions on Korean faces in June. The party is set to continue Down Under and football bosses are rubbing their hands in glee in anticipation of bumper attendances in the A-League’s second season in existence.
A few thousand kilometers to the north, the Korean equivalent of the Australian domestic competition is not looking quite so hale and hearty. The talk in the Korean media is of a “K-League in crisis”. The charge goes that the league is not of a sufficiently high standard to support a competitive national team with overly defensive teams, a lack of creativity, goals and excitement witnessed by a steadily decreasing number of fans.
The post-mortem started immediately after the Taeguk Warriors’ defeat at the hands of the Swiss on June 23. Dick Advocaat told reporters at the press conference that “the K-League has to improve if the national team is to be successful.” The St. Petersburg-bound Dutchman had a point but had already made plans – hardly designed to increase the strength of the league – to take two of the K-League’s biggest stars, Kim Dong-jin and Lee Ho, with him to Russia.
After World Cup exits, it is natural to look for reasons or excuses, especially if the departure comes at the first hurdle. Often the blame falls on the coach, players or referees and while, in this case, it may not be wide of the mark to question the domestic setup it should be kept in mind that there are no easy answers.
It should also be remembered that although the K-League is the oldest professional league in Asia, it is still a baby compared to the big European competitions. When the five teams contested the inaugural season in 1983, the English league was only five years away from its centenary celebrations. It would be miraculous indeed if Korea could compete with such well-established football nations.
There are now fourteen teams and standards, organization and the stadiums have improved dramatically in the two decades but there is a feeling that a plateau has been reached. The next level looks far away at the moment and with an absence of dynamic leadership, there has yet to be a concerted and organized push to get there.
Possible ways to improve standards would fill a great deal of column inches but the fact that there are the first stirrings of a debate at all is as welcome as it is long overdue.
Such discussions would surprise more than a few people abroad. Scores of scribes were genuinely shocked and delighted at the performance of the Red Devils in Frankfurt, Leipzig and Hanover – seasoned old hands that waxed lyrical about how Korean fans are the best and most passionate in the world. They were right as far as the World Cup goes; no other fans came close in Germany. It always seemed unnecessarily cruel to shatter illusions that the same excitement and passion was common back in the Land of the Morning Calm.
It is important however that there is no knee-jerk reaction. There is no doubt that the K-League has problems but these didn’t suddenly appear last month, they have been apparent for some time and it will take more time to solve them. Hopefully, attention will not have wandered before that happens.
Fans should not hold their collective breath. With a few notable exceptions, it is only now that the Korean media, one that devotes more column inches to the Premier League exploits of Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo than the games between the fourteen teams in its own backyard, is talking about how to raise standards in the K-League. It remains to be seen what happens when the English season gets underway.
It is understandable that football journalists who returned to Korea to witness games played in front of small crowds are comparing those negatively with the festival of football that they had been a part in June. The K-League Cup (the competition taking place at the moment) is a pointless one and should be scrapped but regardless, but a number of worthier competitions would feel like an anti-climax when compared to the scenes in Frankfurt and Leipzig.
The K-League restarts in August and can only benefit if there really is a collective will to improve it and compete with the Japanese league that has become the best in Asia. It remains to be seen whether the attention that the competition is currently receiving continues or if it is merely something to talk about until the rain stops.