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Korean FA Cup: Open To All?

Players from all corners of the globe have had the honour and privilege of lifting the Korean FA Cup, players such as Suwon Bluewings’ Brazilian forward Johnathan as recently as last year, his fellow countryman Adriano for FC Seoul a year previous also, whilst some have even captained their sides to victory like Osmar Barba Ibanez did in 2015 for the aforementioned FC Seoul.

Amateur hour 

The first round of the 2017 KEB Hana Bank FA Cup consisted of somewhat of an eclectic mix of semi-professional teams (K3 - fourth tier), corporate teams and university teams. The K3 teams aside, amateur-level players made up the playing squads of  Gyeongsin Cable, SMC Engineering, Korea Fuji Xerox and Nexen Tires, to name but a few, as well as the university team rosters such as Jeonju University, Soongsil University and Hongik University, amongst many others.

Nexen Tires, for example, suffered a heavy 5-1 defeat to the aforementioned Hongik University in round one despite, according to an unnamed former Nexen employee, there being a talent pool of over 4,000 people to choose from and that the CEO of Nexen covers travel costs and even purchased a team bus.

So, what about a team full of foreign players competing? Could a team of foreign players even be allowed to compete in the FA Cup? Well, that very notion is not as far-fetched as one might think. Of course, there are no all-foreign teams competing on the footballing pyramid in Korea as there are rules in place that limit how many foreign players can be selected in K League and FA Cup games, four in total with one of the four being from an Asian Football Confederation country. But there are a handful of foreigner amateur leagues such as the Seoul Saturday Soccer League, the Seoul Sunday Football League, not to mention the Busan leagues of old which were said to be of a high standard at once stage.

Since a great number of corporate, university, and even hospital teams of an amateur volition make up a lot of the first round of the KEB Hana Bank FA Cup every year, why not then shouldn’t the stronger foreign amateur teams be allowed to compete in the Korean FA Cup?

Background 

First, though, a bit of history; the Korean FA Cup as it is known today is actually two separate competitions merged together, the National Football Championships and the All Korea Football Tournament. In 1921, during the Japanese rule of Korea, the Korea Sports Council, or as it is now known the Korea Sport and Olympic Committee, founded the All Korean Football Tournament where youth, student and adult football clubs from different provinces competed. It became part of the Korean National Sports Festival in 1934 before Japanese government oppression forced the council to disband four years later. World War II also interrupted things before, eventually, in 1946 after liberation from Japanese rule, the National Football Championships was founded by the Korean Football Association (KFA), which once again saw youth, amateur and semi-professional clubs compete.

When the K League was formed in 1983 the competition’s popularity waned as the professional clubs didn’t participate in the National Football Championships meaning that fans were unable to see the county’s elite players outside of the K League. That was until, eventually, due to efforts from organisers, professional clubs began to participate in the late 1980s. It was during this time that the competition was renamed as the FA Cup in a bid to add a sense of prestige to the competition. There were some setbacks after a breakdown in the relationship between the K League clubs and the National Football Championships before an eventual second merger in 2000.

Hongik University Vs Chosun University, FA Cup 2nd March 2017
Image courtesy of Facebook.com/KFA

Grass roots 

Accordingly, with an amateur background, why shouldn't some of the foreign amateur teams that make up the strong leagues up and down the country be able to enter? Well, once upon a time some actually did as in the mid-2000s the KFA invited two of the Seoul Sunday League teams to take part, Seoul Celtic and Seoul United. Dan Ciura  an amateur football player who was living and working in South Korea at the time, was part of the Seoul Celtic side in 2005 that took part in the preliminary rounds and believes that, although the foreign amateur teams didn’t do quite enough to make it into the first round proper, one day foreign amateur teams should be invited back. Casting his mind back, Dan reminisced whimsically about what it was like to take part in a professional football competition, saying:

“It was exciting to be in the Korean Cup, for sure. We travelled to Paju, where we played our two group games, and stayed overnight. We had referees, linesmen and other officials on the side, so that was a little different from our regular Sunday games. But the best part about it was the field where we played; it was the national team's training ground in Paju; it was real grass, and it was just great playing on it. Some people, including myself, bought new boots just for that! For most guys it was the first and last time they played on a real grass pitch in Korea. That in itself was worth the trip and overnight stay in Paju.

The first round of the Hana Bank FA Cup begins in early March but in actual fact the competition actually kicks off with the preliminary rounds much earlier. In 2005, such early rounds consisted of a group stage where teams who topped their group could advance as well as the better teams that finished second.

Dan continued: “We played our first game in the morning against a team of chubby middle-aged men, and we won 5-0. Our next game was against a much better team, and we lost by a couple of goals, but we still qualified from the group as one of the better second placed teams as a result of winning our first game by a lot. I remember we were saying that we were a little lucky, since we didn't see any other middle-aged teams playing in the other groups.”

Dan admits that he and his teammates look back on their experience in the FA Cup with a tinge of regret as, admittedly, things became heated between the Seoul Celtic players and the team that knocked them out of the competition. Dan elaborates:

“We then played our first elimination game and lost to a better team. I think the final score was 3-1 to  them. It was unfortunate that some of us got carried away and got angry at our opposition for not playing "like men". There were some ugly scenes and watching the recording of that game was not fun."

“Except for the middle-aged team, the standard was quite high. Seoul United was the best team in the Sunday League at the time and they couldn't make it out of their group, but they were competitive in both their games. “

Up for the cup 

When the question was put to the current players of the Seoul Saturday and Sunday league teams, as perhaps expected, 93% said that they were in favour of foreign amateur teams playing in the FA Cup. One player in particular, Luke Evans, goalkeeper and captain of Incheon Internationals of the Seoul Sunday Football League, is firmly in favour of any ideas to reintroduce foreign amateur teams. He said:

“I think it'd be a great opportunity to experience playing in real venues, with (hopefully) real grass. Most of our lads from overseas grew up playing football on grass and it's definitely a more enjoyable experience.

Seoul Sunday Football League action in Songdo, Incheon.
Image courtesy of Incheon Internationals FC

“Additionally, the English FA Cup is the oldest and most famous around the world, and many of us have happy memories - whether it be the teams we support winning the cup or being part of a giant killing. To just play in an FA Cup tie of sorts would be a huge honour.”

What's in it for the KFA?

In closing, perhaps for the football romantic amongst us or the dreamers who haven’t given up on “making it”, the idea of taking part in the Korean FA Cup would be a dream come true. But, would it actually be good for the competition? If the Korean Football Association were to consider foreign amateur teams again I am not so sure that there is much of a case in favour of them doing so. But, just in case, I’ll refrain from hanging by boots up just yet.

Your thoughts?


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