(Yonhap Feature) Unnoticed and unfollowed, the other football continues in a league of its own
By Eugene Hwang
SEOUL, Dec. 30 (Yonhap) -- Come Jan. 8, the Seoul Warriors will go up against Busan University for the national football championship in the Kimchi Bowl. Kimchi what and Seoul who, you ask?
The type of football they play has no goalkeeper, no striker, no penalty kicks, and no yellow or red cards. The ball they use is not even round. It's American football, a sport that is still not well known to many Koreans.
"We have a football league here?" said Maria Yoon, 29, of Seoul, when asked what she thought about her city's Korean National Football League (KNFL) championship team.
Jeon Seong-woo, 26, of Ilsan, on the outskirts of the capital, asserted that it was Jeonbuk that won the championship, not Seoul. After being told Seoul became the champion in the KNFL, not the K-league, he reacted with surprise, saying "Oh, I thought you were talking about real football, but you're asking about that Hines Ward thing, right? I don't know about American football in Korea."
These types of reactions are to be expected given that fans attending Warriors games usually number in the low hundreds. But the sport's history in Korea is by no means short.
Seoul Warriors vs. Domino Breakers at the KNFL championship game (Courtesy of Yang Sang-ryeol)
According to the Korea American Football Association (KAFA), American football was introduced to Korea shortly after the country gained independence from Japan in 1945 at the end of World War II. KAFA, the governing body for the sport, was founded the following year. In later years, teams started to appear at Korea's major universities. In the 1950s, several local club teams were formed, but they played sporadically with no national league. Eventually, a few of the club teams formed the KNFL. The league uses NCAA rules and currently includes three teams in Seoul, two in Daegu, and two in the Busan area.
For the 1995 season, KAFA organized the first Kimchi Bowl, a national championship game contested by the KNFL champion and the university champion that was played in January 1996. The Kimchi Bowl has since been played every year.
The Seoul Warriors are actually one of the newer additions to the league.
In 2010, Jason Braedon, a KNFL veteran and a player-coach for the Seoul Warriors, had gotten together with a few others to found the team, hoping to bring a more Western style of management and play to the league. One of the first things he did was to convince the league to make exceptions to the KNFL rule which limits the number of foreign players on a KNFL field to three per team. The rule exists to ensure that the league provides an opportunity for the development of Korean players.
"I went to the league meeting and through my association and relationships within the league already, I was able to convince them to alter the rules for us," Braedon said. "I made it clear from day one that we want to be responsible partners in this league to help grow this sport that we all love in Korea."
Most players agree that the league's current level of play is relatively low. The KNFL is not yet a professional league, and the Warriors players actually have to pay 200,000 won (US$172) to play for the year. The team has games every other weekend and the players also have regular jobs, so they can only manage to practice on those weekends that games are not scheduled. Despite this limitation, their playbook consists of about 150 different plays.
"I would probably say that it is most comparable to other semi-professional leagues in the states. Or maybe middle of the pack high school team," explained outside linebacker Ian Macleod.
The players are motivated by what Warriors offensive lineman Matt Doty described as "the love of the game." They play almost unnoticed by the sports world in a country that only seems to be interested in football when the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers (and Hines Ward) are in the Super Bowl. Even with little fame and no fortune, the players enjoy what they get out of playing football in Korea.
"Fans? What fans?" replied Warriors fullback Lawrence Bowlby when asked about the team's relationship with fans. "Our fans are just our friends." But even with the limited fan support, he says that playing football in Korea "has been a blessing."
"Not only in being able to do what I love from home, in a country I love, but to be able to meet like-minded individuals, and form the corresponding relationships, it's been a huge add-on to my life here," he said.
While the sport is steadily gaining in popularity, the players agreed that it pales in comparison to other countries, even those outside of North America. Europe once had a six team league that served as a development league for the NFL. Japan has the X League, a fully professional league with a relatively high level of play. In contrast, the KNFL often has to play on soccer fields with tape used to mark the sidelines and makeshift uprights attached to soccer goals. The Warriors are one of the few teams fortunate enough to have a proper home field, as they play and practice at the high school on the U.S. Army Garrison in Yongsan.
Doty feels that football is not popular in Korea because Koreans do not enjoy sports that Korean athletes are not known to excel in. "Once one Korean athlete or team succeeds in a new sport, it suddenly becomes popular. Look at figure skating before and after Kim Yu-na," he said, referring to Korea's Olympic gold medalist.
"I would like to see football played as a professional sport in Korea in 10 years. I would like to see the Korean National team improve. I would like to see the high schools in Korea have leagues and I would also like to see real football dedicated fields in Korea," said Braedon.
The Seoul Warriors pose with the KNFL championship tropy after defeating the Domino Breakers.
Bowlby said that for football to become a major sport in Korea, a Korean team would have to defeat a Japanese team. The checkered past between the neighboring countries creates a natural sports rivalry that is often played out on soccer pitches, baseball fields, ice rinks, and whenever teams or players from the two countries meet. Japan's football team is a two time American Football World Cup champion, and the Korean team has only qualified for the world cup once, finishing in fifth place. Whenever the national teams meet, Japan has always dominated.
"I plan to put an end to that," said Bowlby, who added that he is doing his part to help improve Korean football as the offensive coordinator at Korea University.
Macleod thinks that the KNFL can only become stronger if Korean players begin to play at younger ages.
"Most all of us on the team have at one time or another played football when we were young," he explained. Meanwhile, many Korean KNFL players first played football in the KNFL itself.
The Warriors' dreams of a future where their sport has a higher profile in Korea may be a long way off, but in the short term, they are looking ahead to the Kimchi Bowl. Fans who wish to attend the game at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul must e-mail the team at email@example.com in advance for security reasons.