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Opinion: Scrap The Two Legged FA Cup Final

In it's current guise the Korean FA Cup has been a part of the footballing calendar in South Korea for over 20 years. During that time eight different teams have won the FA Cup but only three finals have been played over two legs. A combined attendance of just over 15,000 in 2017 suggests that the Korean FA Cup Final should revert back to one game and should be used as a showcase to promote domestic football in Korea. 
(Image via Kookmin Ilbo)


To commemorate its 20th year, the Korean Football Association (KFA) decided that the 2016 KEB Hana Bank FA Cup Final format was to be altered from a single match into a contest played over two legs. Last season's clash between K League heavyweights and bitter rivals FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings meeting for the first time in an FA Cup Final marked just the second time the Final would be played in such a way. It was a Super Match, the El Classico of Korea, and so, given the occasion and what was at stake, the often half-empty stadiums were brimming with excitement. For the first leg at Suwon 31,034 fans flocked to Big Bird for the Bluewings' 2-1 win. Then, a week later 35,037 took in the second leg at Seoul World Cup Stadium resulting in a total attendance of over 66,000 fans over the two legs which ought to be considered a success, and that it was. The 2016 FA Cup Final was a success on the pitch and in the stands but that's because it involved FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings, two of the most well supported clubs in the K League whom always produce context-filled matches that only help to stoke up the already heated rivalry. I was one of the 35,037 who was lucky enough to attend last year's FA Cup Final, having taken in the second leg from the South Stand at Sangam. The game did not disappoint, in fact it had everything; red cards, an injury time goal and a penalty shootout that went through all outfield players and down to the goalkeepers. With the tie delicately poised at 2-1 after the first leg, the second leg, all 120 minutes of it, was one of the best games I have ever had the privilege of witnessing. So, the two leg format is roaring success, then? No, not in my opinion.

The FA Cup Final needs to revert back to a single game. It makes sense for the Asian Champions League to have a two leg final given the distance that the teams have to travel. But in the Korean FA Cup, it just does not make sense to expect fans to travel to two more games after an already gruelling season just as the winter frost appears. It's cold in Korea in November and December yet the first leg was on a Wednesday night; temperatures in Busan are barely above freezing at this time of year during the day time, let alone at night. The weather may very well have played its part as the first leg between Busan IPark and Ulsan Hyundai set the record for the lowest attendance at a Korean FA Cup Final after a mere 2,721 people were in attendance at Busan's Gudeok Stadium. Both Busan and Ulsan are K League stalwarts, both teams have a rich history of silverware with six K League titles and three FA Cup wins between them so it's not so much a question stature, quite simply it is too much of to ask of fans to attend two games at the end of a long season. When attendances are already an issue, why spread the final out further and therefore dilute peoples' interest? On Sunday for the second leg at Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium, the attendance was slightly more befitting of a cup final but still only 12,562 spectators were in attendance. Combined, the 2017 final had one of the lowest attendance in the history of the FA Cup with a mere 15,832. For comparison, before this year the next lowest attended final was 2011 when 15,823 were at Tancheon Sports Complex to witness Seongnam Ilwha Chunma Vs Suwon Bluewings but that was over one leg and Tancheon was at near capacity.  In the case of the 2017 Final, Busan's Gudeok certainly wasn't, nor was Ulsan's Munsu Stadium where 12,562 people had to endure a rather drab 0-0 draw. Had the final had been just the one game then at least, had it finished 0-0 after 90 minutes, there would have at least been extra time and potential a dramatic penalty shootout win.


Catchment Area

Not that I am suggesting that every FA Cup Final ought to be played in Seoul but certainly catchment area is a factor in comparing the attendances from this and last year's finals. Seoul has a population of over 9 million, Suwon has a population of 1.2 million but if you take the province, or the Seoul Capital Area that surrounds these two cities into consideration, that's a catchment area of over 25 million people; in other words over half the population of the entire country. Furthermore, given the the transport links into the Seoul Capital Area and the relative ease of access into Seoul World Cup Stadium, and to a slightly lesser extent Suwon World Cup Stadium, there is no wonder that FA Cup Finals in the capital will draw big crowds.  Both Ulsan and Busan are seen as "Metropolitan Cities" that are governed separately from the provinces in which they are situated, namely North Gyeongsang in the case of Ulsan and South Gyeongsang for Busan. The combined population for these two provinces is around 10 million people, less than half of that in the north west. To judge the two legged final as a model based 2016's as a success based on the attendance alone would be short-sighted. FC Seoul, Suwon Bluewings, or even Jeonbuk Hyundai aren't going to make the final every year, as 2017 has proven. It reforms are in order then it shouldn't be by adding an extra game, it's quality not quantity.

Neutral Venue

The FA Cup Final should be played in a neutral venue with the football specific stadiums taking turn to host the final each year. Seoul World Cup Stadium could be used to host every FA Cup Final as the Seoul Capital Area would at least offer the most densely populated area. But, what I'd like to propose is that, much like how the Korean National Team play friendlies in stadiums other than their home stadium of Seoul World Cup Stadium, the FA Cup should be used to help promote domestic football in Korea and have a new venue every year. The media would be based from that particular city in the run up to the final to help drum up interest, whilst the KFA would give tickets to schools and sports academies, universities, foreign sports groups and societies, and really try to make a showcase final to finish the season on a high and to try to attract either new fans to give K League a chance or the stay-away fans to come back. It's a long wait until domestic football comes around again come March the following year, leave fans wanting more instead of having the season whimper out to a 0-0 draw.

Conclusion

Even though Suwon Bluewings won the FA Cup last year, fans seldom seem to talk about the first leg where Suwon actually won (the Bluewings lost 2-1 at Sangam in leg two). Instead, they talk about the second leg - the real final, if you will. One of the games is, largely, meaningless. Making the final two legs is in danger of making the competition meaningless. Scrap the two leg FA Cup Final.

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