(News Focus) New K League Classic football season off to rousing start amid fans galore
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- The 2014 K League Classic season got off to a rousing start as a record number of fans enjoyed a weekend of action-packed football.
All 12 clubs got into action over the past two days, and the defending champ Pohang Steelers opened with a 1-0 loss to the 2013 runner-up Ulsan Hyundai at home on Saturday.
It was a rematch of a thrilling season finale from last year. Ulsan held a two-point lead over Pohang before that game and only needed a draw to secure their first championship. Pohang then scored only seconds before the final whistle for a dramatic 1-0 victory, snatching the trophy from Ulsan's grasp.
Ulsan got the upper hand this time, and striker Kim Shin-wook scored the winner, the very first goal of the 2014 season.
It was a day of personal redemption for Kim. He was suspended for the final contest last season on two yellow cards and watched from the stands as Pohang dashed Ulsan's title hopes. Kim had been tied with Dejan Damjanovic of FC Seoul for the league lead in goals, but Damjanovic scored on the final day to take sole possession of the crown.
Kim had been questionable for the 2014 season opener, having only returned from Greece on Friday after playing for the South Korean national team in a 2-0 victory.
Kim admitted he was fatigued and had trouble concentrating, but the devastating loss to Pohang last year was the main reason he decided to play on Saturday.
"If not for that game last year, I wouldn't have played," he said, after playing the entire match. "I really wanted to score against them."
Ulsan Hyundai's striker Kim Shin-wook celebrates after scoring the winner over Pohang Steelers in the team's 1-0 victory in the K League Classic season opener on March 8, 2014, in Pohang, South Korea. (Yonhap)
Pohang and Ulsan may yet battle for the title once again, but they will also likely have to fend off Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, many experts' pick as the championship favorite in 2014.
Jeonbuk's convincing 3-0 win over Busan IPark on Saturday further served to validate pundits' belief.
Three different players got on the score sheet for Jeonbuk, a team long known for its offensive prowess. Jeonbuk was the second-highest scoring team in 2013, after leading the league in goals in 2011 and in 2012.
On Feb. 26, Jeonbuk also enjoyed a 3-0 victory, that time over Yokohama F. Marinos of Japan in the opening group stage match of the AFC Champions League, an Asian club tournament.
The team's offense may be firing on all cylinders, but Jeonbuk isn't entirely without concerns.
Jeonbuk is one of four K League Classic teams participating in the AFC Champions League this year, along with Pohang, FC Seoul and Ulsan. Some early group stage matches are jampacked into March and April, forcing these teams to make overseas trips during the early period of the domestic season.
Jeonbuk players barely had time to celebrate their opening win over Busan, as they had to fly to Australia on Sunday to face Melbourne Victory in the AFC Champions League on Wednesday.
Three days after playing Melbourne, Jeonbuk has an away match against Incheon United.
Then on March 18, Jeonbuk will hit the road again, this time to face Guangzhou Evergrande, the 2013 AFC champion, in China.
After the K League Classic opener, Jeonbuk has to play five matches in 18 days in four different cities. Jeonbuk at least has substantial roster depth that allows head coach Choi Kang-hee to field two competitive teams, a luxury that other clubs don't have.
That doesn't mean Jeonbuk has it any easier, a team official said.
"The early schedule is putting a lot of pressure on our guys," the official said. "Our coaches are trying their best to keep them fresh. We left some players at home for the Melbourne trip and let them get ready for the Incheon game on Saturday."
Elsewhere in the K League Classic on Sunday, Gyeongnam FC defeated Seongnam FC 1-0 in a coaching matchup between two grizzled veterans, as Australian defender Luke DeVere scored in the 89th minute.
Gyeongnam head coach Lee Cha-man, 63, is back in pro football after 15 years away. Park Jong-hwan, a former youth national team head coach who'd earlier guided Seongnam to three consecutive league titles, returned to professional coaching following an eight-year absence. At 76, he's the oldest bench boss in the league this year.
Lee said afterward that his attempts to stay calm in a match against his mentor proved futile, and he spent most of the nervy game on his feet.
"I didn't think I'd be so nervous," he said. "I tried to stay on the bench, but I figured I'd be better off just standing around."
Lee said Gyeongnam opened the offseason training camp about 10 days before most other clubs, and the early work seemed to have paid dividends.
"I wanted our players to train as much as they could in the warmer climate," said Lee, whose club spent about a month in Turkey. "We need to be sharper on offense, as far as creating shooting opportunities, but I think we had good chemistry today among veterans and younger players."
Park, who became a national hero after coaching South Korea to the semifinals at the 1983 FIFA World Youth Championship, took the defeat in his stride.
"I think our players performed only to about 60 or 70 percent of their capabilities," he said. "They might have been trying too hard because this was the first game. But this also gave us confidence that we can do better the next time."
The two teams' matchup attracted just under 11,000 fans at Gyeongnam's home, Changwon Football Center in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, about 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
The league office announced that the season's first six matches had an average crowd of 13,248 fans, the largest for an opening weekend since the league started keeping data in 2012. Five of the half-dozen games drew more than 10,000.
Last year, the opening weekend averaged 11,558 fans per game, down about 100 fans from 2012.
Starting in 2012, the K League Classic required ticketing agencies and teams to submit relevant documents to the league headquarters to ensure more transparency in attendance figures. It was in response to criticism that some teams deliberately embellished their attendance numbers.