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AFC Asian Cup 2023: Why K League Fans Should Get Excited

Another major football tournament will soon decide its host and Korea is bidding! With news that Thailand has officially dropped out of the running for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, the two remaining countries bidding are China and the Republic of Korea. The AFC will choose the host at its Executive Committee meeting later this year. In his first piece for K League United, Michael Welch details why Korea needs this tournament more than China and how K League could hugely benefit from hosting.

First off, it should be acknowledged that there are arguments against hosting these major tournaments. After watching the ongoing fiasco in Brazil and Rio after their hosting of the World Cup and Summer Olympics, people are weary of spending public money on stadiums that do not benefit the public. This is a very valid argument, but there is a counter argument that those bigwigs at FIFA and the IOC always trot out. They talk about development. They talk about bringing better facilities and developing sports infrastructure for the public to use after the games leave. Let’s be clear, that is usually very much BS as we have seen in the case of the decaying and unused stadiums all around Brazil. This would be the same argument used for Thailand to stage their first solo Asian Cup. It would develop football further in the country by bringing more modern stadiums for club football and training facilities for clubs and youth footballers to use in the future. However, with Thailand pulling their bid, we are left with two developed nations vying to stage the tournament and hopefully win it on home soil.

China, I’m sorry, you don’t need this tournament. The CSL is flush with cash, stadiums are getting built, the government has made developing soccer academies a priority, and attendance at CSL matches is strong. Korea and the K League really need this tournament. The KFA can say hosting this tournament will further the development of football in Korea and they should make this argument to the Korean public. And there are a number of ways the KFA and K League could (and should) team up for a successful bid.

Before going into the practical ideas of the bid, let’s dismiss a pipe dream that I am not supportive of with this bid. The KFA may pledge to stage games in North Korea and promote the bid as bringing about peace and unity on the Korean peninsula. This is all well and good because the Korean peninsula does deserve peace and reunification, but you should never buy this as a way to achieve that. Leave it to the governments and diplomats to sort that out.

Okay, now let’s talk about something our own Ryan Walters loves to talk about: football-specific stadiums (or soccer-specific stadiums, as we Yanks call them)! This is how the KFA and the K League should sell this bid. They should pledge to use the existing football-specific stadiums in Incheon and Daegu and plan to build a few more stadiums in cities that express an interest in hosting matches. The bid should be compact and take from the successful use of A League stadiums in Australia’s 2015 Asian Cup. Let’s break it down a bit.

For Australia’s tournament, they only used five stadiums and didn’t build any new, unnecessary ones. The national venue, Stadium Australia, hosted the final. The other four stadiums were football-specific grounds used by A League clubs, and of those four only one had a capacity of more than 40,000. The average attendance for the tournament was 19,818. It is not a stretch to say that Korea can follow this lead to a T and build on what was a very successful tournament for Australia. The national stadium, Seoul World Cup Stadium, can and should be used to stage the opening match and final day of the tournament. Additionally, since the Asian Cup has expanded to 24 teams, I would imagine the AFC and KFA would want a total of eight stadiums to host matches. So let’s find seven more stadiums that are capable of hosting matches that also meet the standard of being football-specific! Shouldn’t be hard right?

Let’s start with Incheon United’s beautiful Incheon Football Stadium. A statement I feel confident making as an Incheon fan who’s spent many a wonderful afternoon there. With a capacity of 20,891 it is perfect for group stage matches and knockout rounds. It’s in the city center, easily accessible, and puts fans right up close to the action. If there is an upgrade to be made, I suggest a football training center for the community, similar to the pitches at the Seoul World Cup Stadium on the empty lot in the northeast corner of the stadium.

Next up, the Pohang Steel Yard. Why not make some renovations to the OG football-specific stadium of Korea that was built in 1990? A major tournament is a great opportunity to spruce up an already great stadium.

Let’s head off to Daegu now for the planned redevelopment of the Daegu Civil Stadium. Daegu FC intends to make the redeveloped stadium their home next season with an estimated capacity of 12,000 and plans for more if needed. Why not gauge that need over the next couple of years? If their attendance is growing, the KFA could work with Daegu FC to make that capacity increase possible. If not, host group stage matches in a rocking, small stadium filled with fans. One of Australia’s stadiums averaged 11,771 for their matches, which is near Daegu’s projected capacity. Wouldn’t it be amazing for fans to watch a stadium filled with fans for once? Wouldn’t that make the casual resident of Daegu more interested in going to watch matches at the new Daegu FC stadium?

The Winter Olympics will be Alpensia Ski Jumping Stadium coming out party, but it is already staging K League matches for Gangwon FC. For the Asian Cup, there is a terrific opportunity to complete this great little stadium and fully make it into a football-specific ground. It may be controversial, but I suggest taking down the ski jump and completing a full rectangular stadium. Build in some shade to cover the stands, but keep that incredible view of the mountains. Also, make sure there is adequate transport for fans trying to get to this venue. If the capacity of the ground is increased to 20-25 thousand, it could be a showcase of what Korea has to offer.

Busan would be the perfect spot for the first completely new stadium to be built for the 2023 Asian Cup. At 53,000 capacity and with an athletics track to boot, Asiad Stadium has always been a terrible fit for Busan IPark. There has been talk of redeveloping the more appropriately sized Gudeok Stadium into a proper football stadium for them, but nothing has come of it yet. The Asian Cup could bring about the impetus to finally get a stadium redevelopment plan approved for Gudeok. The Asia Cup inspired renovation would move another K League team out of a stadium too big for it, which is always a plus in my book!

A well executed stadium project on Jeju island could help secure the Asian Cup and ensure Jeju United’s future on the island. This past spring, Jeju United were forced to play their Round of 16 AFC Champions League tie at Jeju Stadium in the afternoon because it lacked adequate lighting for a night game and they had been kicked out of Jeju World Cup Stadium by the U20 World Cup. For the Asian Cup, why not convert Jeju Stadium into a proper football stadium? This would be huge for United as relocation rumors always dog them due to poor attendance at Jeju World Cup Stadium. Being located in Seogwipo, the smaller, more touristy city of the island is the main reason they've had poor attendance, so why not move them? Seogwipo was a great stadium for a World Cup filled with tourists, but for full-time residents of Jeju? Not so much. Giving the club an option in the more populous Jeju City will help them fully embrace their island home.

Finally, this Asian Cup needs to visit the soccer-mad city of Jeonju. The KFA could get Jeonju World Cup Stadium rocking by putting Korea’s group matches there. Just watch 40,000 fans pack that place chanting  “대한민국” and my work here is done. As mentioned, the tournament could finish up with a final day at Seoul World Cup Stadium and would be a rollicking success.

However, I still have some ideas about how to improve Seoul World Cup Stadium. You may not like them, but hear me out. Make it smaller. The KFA struggles to sell it out for World Cup qualifying matches and FC Seoul will never have 66,000 fans at a match. So, take off the upper tier and elevate the supporters section stands behind both goals a la Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park and make it a 40,000 seater that is always loud and boisterous. It’s time to realize that the World Cup has passed and every stadium in Korea needs to fit the needs of its club more closely in modern times. Removing some seats from FC Seoul's home would be one big step in that direction.

Notice which stadiums I left out of this mix? Hwaseong Stadium? Pass. Yongin Sports City Stadium? No thank you. I’m passing on stadiums that still adhere to the multi-use development of Korea’s past. Stadiums with tracks around the pitch can hold regional sports festivals or athletics meets, but I don’t think the atmosphere will be right for the Asian Cup. Small stadiums with fans close to the pitch? Perfect!

With those stadiums in mind, let’s execute and market this tournament even better than the recent U20 World Cup, where I attended quite a few matches. The U20 World Cup was a flawed but generally successful tournament. It bested the attendance averages of the previous two editions and finished off with a great final at Suwon World Cup Stadium; helped by England winning the final in front of a very British expat crowd. The biggest flaw of the tournament was the lack of help it gave to the K League clubs who gave up their stadiums for it. In 2023, the KFA should work together with K League to really make the tournament work for both parties. The KFA should certainly aim to begin this tournament in June, as the weather conditions for the U20 World Cup were perfect. This will free the Europe-based stars of Asia to be released at the end of their club season and will also serve as a perfect K League break. Before the K League goes on break for this tournament, any club sending players could have a send-off ceremony showing fans who will be on display in the tournament. Then, during the tournament, K League should partner with tournament organizers for ticket deals. Since the AFC and FIFA have soulless rules disallowing any advertisements from clubs in the stadiums, ticket deals will be the easiest way for K League to capitalize on the tournament and hold interest.

For example, season ticket holders for Incheon United could use their season tickets for any Asian Cup matches at the stadium. For newcomers that buy tickets to the Asian Cup, remind them on the way in and out of the gates about the next K League match after the tournament and tell them to bring their ticket for a discount. At transit stations closest to the stadiums, not only should there be posters detailing which Asian Cup matches will be in the city, but some K League info right next to it. On the final day of the tournament, we can only hope fans will be captivated by a Korean team keeping the trophy in Korea. What will those fans be doing the next weekend? Going to a K League match!

Even though the big governing bodies that run football aren’t out to help, it doesn’t mean the KFA and K League can’t put on a great tournament that will benefit Korean football for years to come.


  1. Does Korea have a chance to win hosting rights? I mean we all know how the corrupt AFC loves $$$ and China is full of $$$.

  2. The KFA is corrupt too, so I don't see why they wouldn't be able to convince the AFC to award them the tournament. KFA is essentially run by Hyundai right now. But yes, China does have the money advantage at this point.


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