Category Archives: k-keague

Gwangju Sangmu 1-2 Ulsan Horangi-i

Gwangju Sangmu Phoenix turned in yet another mediocre performance, as they tasted defeat in their final game of the season. But if truth be told, Sunday’s effort was about par for the course on a season that’s seen them win only 3 games from 28, scoring a paltry 17 goals and conceding a 43. Both sides came into the encounter with different reasons for needing the points. Ulsan, twice K-League champions, were looking to maintain the good form that has seen them take a place in the Asian Champions League play-off positions. Gwangju, on the other hand, were chasing a victory that would keep them off bottom position in the table; a feat they managed to “achieve” despite losing, with Daegu’s inept showing at Chunnam Dragons (2-1) meaning they took this season’s wooden spoon.

Gwangju started brightly enough, penning Ulsan back in their own half for the majority of the opening exchanges and their early endeavour was rewarded with the opening goal on only 12 minutes. Cho Yong-Tae rose to meet a cross and knocked it past Korean international goalkeeper Kim Young-Kwang. Gwangju’s coach and supporters will have been disappointed that their team’s impetus was maintained so briefly. Only 7 minutes later, Ulsan were level. Paraguayan striker Jose Maria Ortigoza (a promising attacker, on loan from Club Sol de America in his homeland and who made his international debut earlier this year), latched onto a forward ball, beat the defender and rifled in a shot from a narrow angle. Kim Jee-Hyuk, in the Gwangju goal, got his gloves, but only enough to parry it into his own net. It was a fortuitous goal, but highlighted the lethal form Ortigoza has been in of late. Second top scorer in the K-League for the season with 17 (as many as the entire Gwangju team have mustered), he finished the league season with 7 goals in his final 6 games.

Proceedings were scrappy up until half time, with neither side wanting to seize the initiative, a pattern that continued into the second period. In the 54th minute, though, Ortigoza pounced again for the goal of the game. Played in by a midfielder he received the ball at the edge of the area, held off a couple of Sangmu defenders, before firing low into the bottom corner of the hapless Kim’s goal. At 2-1, it never looked as though Gwangju were going to get back into it. The players looked disinterested and demotivated and Ulsan were happy to knock it around, letting the soldiers chase their shadows. It was a disappointing end to what’s ostensibly the club’s final K-League season.

The newly formed Gwangju FC launched their website last month( – Korean only) and an official foundation ceremony is mooted for December, at which stage they hope to be accepted into the K-League as the 16th member, competing as of 2011. It has been suggested that they will be allowed special dispensation (as Gangwon were a few years back) to select players from this year’s draft to flesh out their squad. They were previously said to be adopting the moniker “Gwangju Rayers” (supposedly because “ray” suggests imagery of light beams – a futuristic image that correlates with the growing city of Gwangju, and of course relates to Gwangju being the City of Light), but this has been put back for review (apparently due to some controversy over a local ray fish delicacy and the propensity of Koreans outside of the province to refer to Jeolla natives in derogatory terms related to the ray fish).

54-year-old Choi Man-Hee has been appointed as head coach and there is optimism that Gwangju will be able to shed the label of “whipping boys”. The prospect of a citizen team frees the coach to select the players he wants, not necessarily soldiers. It also creates the possibility of strengthening yearly and not building again from scratch once the players finish their military service. The potential to recruit international players, such as the hugely impressive Ortigoza, could also result in a welcome boost to attendances at the World Cup Stadium.



Gwangju Sangmu 1 – 1 Suwon Bluewings

Written for Gwangju Blog

The World Cup Stadium in Gwangju isn’t full at the best of times, so you can almost understand the paucity of supporters for Gwangju Sangmu’s K-League game on Sunday against Suwon Bluewings. After all, before kick-off, Sangmu were lying second from bottom. They’d scored thirteen goals in twenty games and recorded a paltry 3 victories. Talk of a citizen team to replace the current military set-up will no doubt be welcomed, but for now, we must make do with the soldiers! But that’s not to say a trip to watch them in action isn’t worthwhile. For fans of “the beautiful game” in Gwangju, it’s a chance to see professional soccer at a decent level. For those yet to awaken to its splendor, it’s a nice day out, in comfortable surroundings.

Suwon arrived at the Guus Hiddink Stadium as strong favorites, seven places ahead of Sangmu in the league table and one of the traditional powerhouses of Korean soccer, having won the K-League four times and the Asian Champions League twice. The difference between the two sets of supporters was marked: the Suwon followers cheered as only those who have tasted success can, consistent and choreographed. In contrast, the Gwangju support was tame and non-expectant, although one section of the crowd was impressively vocal. However, the cagy way in which the visitors started Sunday’s game was no indication as to a bridge in quality. Indeed, Gwangju’s stifling tactics proved to be more than a match for Suwon for much of the first half.

The play was scrappy. Any form of attack was strictly of the Route One variety, over the top. But just when it looked as though the spoils were to be shared at half time, Hong Soon-Hak broke free of his marker and was fouled in the area, with Gwangju conceding a penalty in the forty third minute. Japanese international and former Boca Juniors and Eintracht Frankfurt striker Naohiro Takahara stepped up and made no mistake from twelve yards

With the deadlock broken, both teams emerged for the second period a little more adventurously. Gwangju’s captain Choi Sung-Kuk went close with a volley from just outside the box, which was a harbinger for more involvement in the game from the influential forward. Suwon pushed on looking for a second, leaving gaps at the back, gaps the Sangmu forward line failed to capitalize on until late on. Gwangju’s Korean World Cup star, Kim Jung-Woo had a quiet game, but it was his mazy run past a couple of Bluewings defenders that led to the equalizer, after he was felled in the area.

The referee didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot, and up stepped that man Choi again to fire past the keeper, high into the roof of the net. It was a goal Gwangju’s second half performance arguably deserved, but the military team could have snatched the victory as the game crept towards stoppage time. Choi again made space for himself in the Suwon penalty area, but was closed down just as he was about to pull the trigger. A powerful header drew a great save from Kang-Jin Ha in the visitors’ goal, but they held on for a point.

A point, though, is of little use to Gwangju. They are still hovering a single place from the foot of the table in what has been a disappointing season. Here is hoping the talk of a citizen team comes to fruition. This city deserves a quality, committed soccer team.

What does the future hold for Gwangju Sangmu Phoenix?

A recent article in the respected English football journal When Saturday Comes explored the direction taken by the Japanese Football Association in creating a successful professional league. Last year, the J-League drew an average crowd of 19,000, compared with the mean gate of 25,000 at an Italian Serie A game (Serie A being in the top 3 most vaunted leagues in the world). The author opined that part of the reason for this has been the healthy competition between the J-League and its Korean counterpart, the K-League. “What is interesting,” he mused, “is the way that the improvement of Japan and the J-League has also had a positive impact on the quality of the South Korean team and the K-League.”There can be no disputing the progress made by South Korea’s national team over the past decade and the league as a whole has risen in profile and stature. But the news has seemingly yet to filter down to the people of Gwangju. The city’s local team, Gwangju Sangmu Phoenix, had an average attendance of 7,719 in 2009, the second lowest in the K-League. The figure is an absolute travesty when you consider the facilities the team boast at the Guus Hiddink World Cup Stadium, but a little more palatable when you consider some of the facts. Sangmu is the sporting division of the Military of South Korea and Phoenix is the professional football club. The playing staff is made up entirely of young Korean professional footballers serving their obligatory two years national service. Fifteen players sign for the team every season. They spend two seasons in Gwangju before returning to their previous professional club.

At a time when football is becoming ever more international, more glamorous and more colourful, the opportunity to watch eleven soldiers struggle to produce the desired level of cohesion and quality needed to challenge the big guns of Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Suwon Samsung Bluewings simply doesn’t register with the locals.Sangmu are not allowed to sign any foreign players because of their military status and as such, the side really doesn’t have the wow factor perhaps required to drag the punters away from the (erstwhile) successful baseball team Kia Tigers.

It’s particularly difficult when you consider the imports on show elsewhere. Ulsan Hyundai, for example, are lining up this season with Colombia internationals Juan Estiven Velez and Carmelo Valencia. Seongnam’s attack has been spearheaded by their compatriot Mauricio Molina. Montenegran striker DejanDamjanović leads the line for FC Seoul and just about every other K-League outfit boasts players plucked from foreign leagues.

But that’s not to say a trip to the World Cup Stadium to support Sangmu isn’t worthwhile. Coming from Ireland, the local teams I grew up with could only dream of the amenities the faithful of Phoenix enjoy. The ground has a capacity of 44,118 and is an all-seater. Transport links are convenient and the fact that you can bring your own beers and do a quick food shop at the adjacent Lotte Mart means a Gwangju Sangmu home game makes for great day out: with a family or friends. Alas, the stadium doesn’t attract anything resembling a full house. I attended the K-League’s Round 11, when the visitors to Gwangju were Gangwon FC. The attendance was a paltry 2,367 (the stadium was under 5% full), but the quality of football on show was impressive, and the fervour of some of the fans that had attended was admirable. A troupe of bare-chested ultras led the chorus: banging out a steady rhythm on drums and chanting as though the stadium was heaving. For the most part though, the occasion was marked for its comfort and the mildness of the afternoon. Regular attendees of professional football would rarely describe their endeavours as pleasant, peaceful or tranquil, but the afternoon ticked all of those boxes.

Sangmu were in the driving seat for the most part and their dominance paid off when Kim Dong-Hyun broke the deadlock early in the second half. They held out for a narrow victory, although Gangwon rarely looked like troubling Seong Kyun-Il’s goal. The Sangmu line-up contained midfielder Kim Jung-Woo, who went on to impress in the World Cup in South Africa, playing in all four of ROK’s games. It pushed the side up to a respectable ninth position in the table, which would be their best showing for six seasons should they maintain it for the duration of the season.

The future of football in the city, though, is in the balance, with some interesting developments afoot. The city’s mayor has this year pledged his full support to a local citizen team to kick off in 2011. Such a move would certainly offer a lifeline to the beautiful game in Gwangju. Sure, they would be able to sign overseas players (although many argue that those willing to ply their trade in Korea are only doing so because they couldn’t cut the mustard elsewhere and are looking to make a quick buck), but the consequences run much deeper than this. One of the cornerstones of creating a solid fanbase is loyalty; amongst both fans and staff. With the current system, players can play a maximum of two years with Gwangju Sangmu before returning to their “parent clubs”. With an independent team, they could nurture their own youth players, cultivate cult heroes and produce players synonymous with the Gwangju brand: a feat that is impossible in their current guise. How gutting it must be for regular followers of the side to watch their best players getting shipped off season after season.

Player allegiance is another issue that could be rectified. It is a timeworn fact that players perform better where they are wanted and where they have chosen to be. Having been plucked from such an environment and placed in the line-up of the country’s military team, their performance levels are liable to drop. If Gwangju wish to be truly competitive in the K-League, the creation of an independent side is a necessity. And hopefully then the World Cup Stadium won’t cut the lonely figure of a white elephant on the Sangmu horizon.

Written for Gwangju News