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(Yonhap Feature) New football team gets off to happy start second time around
By John Duerden
Contributing writer
ANYANG, South Korea, April 4 (Yonhap) -- After a very long and cold winter, a warm sun was finally shining. Excited children were having their faces painted in the team's colors, fans were singing and the great and the good of South Korean football were present to witness Anyang FC host Goyang HiFC in the opening weekend last month of the country's new professional second tier. And if that wasn't enough, Anyang, a city without a team since 2003, scored within one minute of the kick-off.

   It was a good start, and nothing more for both new team and new league. Much hard work lies ahead if this second division, called the K League Challenge, is to become a success and an integral part of the football system in the country.

   The reorganization of Korean football came in response to the match-fixing scandal of 2011, which brought about a determination to make the game as professional as possible and not only in the 14-team top tier, renamed the K League Classic.

   "The second division is vital to the long-term health of Korean football," said Park Yong-soo, a senior official at the Korea Football Association. "If we can nourish it, it can grow and provide a strong foundation to the whole of Korean football. It will take time, but we are confident it will happen."

   Whether the second league, which consists of eight clubs and offers promotion to the K League Classic, is successful depends on the new teams that have been established.

   There is a debate as to which is the best ownership model for South Korean football teams. The most successful clubs, such as Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are, as their names suggest, backed by global conglomerates and able to buy and retain top domestic and foreign players.

Fans cheer at the March 17 match between Anyang FC and Goyang HiFC (Photos courtesy of K League)

Then there are "citizen teams," such as Incheon United, financed by the city and corporate sponsors. These clubs often sell their biggest stars to their wealthier competitors. And rarer in Korea is the example of Goyang who rely largely on wealthy benefactors.

   The biggest issue when it comes to establishing a football club in South Korea -- and indeed anywhere -- is an obvious one as Kwon Sung-jin, the marketing manager of Incheon United and Goyang HiFC when both clubs were starting up, explained.

   "It's money. That is what it is all about, financial stability," said Kwon, also a former deputy general manager of what was then called the K League. "Any club needs to secure its future. There are different ways whether by sponsorship, support from the city or company or a wealthy individual. Clubs need to know that they are financially secure in the medium and long term."

   "Realistically, at this time, companies owning clubs is the best way. Citizen clubs depend on political issues too much and politics can change very quickly. Being owned by big business is more stable."

   Anyang fans may not agree as they have experienced the consequence of having a conglomerate making football decisions. Anyang LG Cheetahs won the K League title in 2000 and was one of the best teams in Asia at the time with a strong supporter base and talented players. In 2004, however, parent company LG decided to relocate the team to Seoul to use the vacant World Cup Stadium in the capital in the face of bitter protests from fans of the Cheetahs.

   "It was a terrible time for Anyang fans and the whole city," said Kim Myung-min, a former fan of Anyang Cheetahs and now a follower of the new Anyang FC. "We've waited for nine years, but we didn't just wait and do nothing. At first we protested and protested, but then later we started to campaign and tried to persuade the city that Anyang needs a soccer team to call its own. We had many setbacks but we did not give up even though there were times when we thought that it was impossible. We thought we had failed but in the end, we had a team again. This time though, it belongs to the city and its people, and not a company."

   Whatever the ownership model, when the money is secure, the next step, according to Kwon, becomes all about attracting fans and building a stable fan base.


"The most important thing is to attract people to the stadium and at the same time, the players must be connected with these people," he said. "They have to connect with each other on an emotional level. All clubs know that the core target groups are children and young adults. Sometimes the youth in this country suffers from a lack of something to be involved with. A club can quickly become something meaningful for them but Korean people expect good service and a good product."

   That seemed to be the case on March 17 in Anyang as some 4,000 people went home happy after watching the team tie the game 1-1 against Goyang.

   "For Anyang FC, what happens on the pitch is a result of all the hard work that has gone on off it for a long time by fans and the people of Anyang," said Anyang coach Lee Woo-young. "We got a perfect start but we know that this is just a first step in a long journey. We will do our best to ensure that we stay united and keep working hard."

   It is not just the people of Anyang that want the team to be successful, it is important for everyone involved in Korea that the new teams and the new league become a vital part of the football system.