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End of an Era: What Dejan Damjanović's Suwon Move Says About FC Seoul

After over 300 games and nearly 200 goals in red and black, FC Seoul and K League legend Dejan Damjanović has officially moved to bitter rivals Suwon after being rejected by the capital club. 
(image via reprezentacija.me)

"If they want me, then I am going to stay here."

Whenever a club legend continues their career in another team's colors there is always going to be heartbreak among the fans. However, that heartbreak can quickly turn to resentment and anger when those colors are that of a fierce rival. And that's exactly where 36-year-old Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanović finds himself after signing with Super Match rivals Suwon Samsung Bluewings. On the global scale, this doesn't exactly rank up there with the likes of Robin van Persie leaving Arsenal for Manchester United, and certainly nowhere near Luis Figo breaking hearts in his Barcelona for Real Madrid swap. But for K League fans, and specifically those rooting for FC Seoul, it hits just as hard.

Unlike his more famous European counterparts, there was more at play for Damjanović than the amount of zeros at the end of the check when it came to signing for a rival club. For starters, he was signed on a free transfer after FC Seoul failed to offer a contract extension, so neither he nor the club made any money there. Secondly, it's certainly possible Dejan will make more with Suwon in 2018 than he could have with Seoul, but it's not likely to be an extreme difference given the similarity in both club's payrolls. Perhaps most importantly, signing with another club – any other club – wasn't his first choice. Something he touched on specifically in our first interview with him this summer:
"I came to finish football in FC Seoul and to be like a living legend. Now I am living legend at FC Seoul because nobody did what I did for foreigners. It's not going to be forgotten. But I just want to stay here and continue [playing] football. Just to be around Seoul again, to do something for FC Seoul because I really, really think that this is my second home. So hopefully it is going to stay like that."
It was in this second home that Dejan wanted to put the finishing touch on a record-setting career by doing the one thing he'd yet to do: win AFC Champions League. Something he still had his sights set on in the waning months of the 2017 season as the FA Cup and any realistic shot at a second consecutive K League title slipped away. That an ultra-competitive striker would still covet one last go at a trophy in the twilight of his career is in no way surprising. What is somewhat surprising for a player that's represented 11 clubs on two different continents was how much it clearly meant to him to do it representing Korea and wearing the red and black of FC Seoul. Something he touched on during our second interview with him:
"ACL is a competition where you represent the K League. You represent the capital city. This is FC Seoul, we are in the capital. The biggest and main city in Korea. It is not only this, we represent the country, and who will represent it better than FC Seoul. The best stadium, the best fans and we were the best team for a long time. So with this kind of thing, you must keep the level of FC Seoul. Normally when you are there, you need to show the best performance and try to go to the final if it's possible, but you must play ACL. This must be a normal thing every year. You must play ACL and then we are going to see something else. So these kind of other things, we must not speak about. We are not only representing us, we represent the K League, Korea, my country, everything."
The opportunity to represent a Korean club on the international stage is obviously still there for Dejan, and one that likely played into his decision making process this winter. But again, it wasn't his plan A heading into the off season. Even when it seemed evident Seoul was going to miss ACL, he still said he wanted to stay put:"them first and then we're going to see. If they want me, then I am going to stay here."

A Dish Best Served Cold

Dejan told Seoul he wanted to stay and win more titles, they reportedly told him to retire. If true, it's an extraordinary response for a man that's worn their shirt over 300 times and just finished second in league scoring with 19 goals. Being spurned by the club he had hoped to retire with would in and of itself be motive enough for Dejan to plot a bit of revenge, but not likely with the blue half of the Super Match. No, I believe what drove Dejan just 34km South to Seoul's arch rival was the club's decision to retain and subsequently back manager Hwang Sunhong.

From reported arguments during practice to the starting lineup power struggle that played out on the field throughout the season, it's been clear the two didn't exactly see eye to eye. Talking with multiple players on the team, it became evident that they were barely on speaking terms with Hwang referring to Dejan as "one top" in practice instead of using his name (unlike with Park Chuyoung and other strikers, who the manager calls by name). In return Damjanović said little more than hello to Hwang, and sometimes not even that much. Obviously only the two involved know the true extent of what happened, but enough has come out to paint a pretty clear picture of discontentment in the locker room.

With their refusal to offer Dejan a contract, Seoul have decidedly taken a stance on one side of that dividing line. As suggested earlier, it's possible money was an issue with Dejan bringing in the fourth highest salary in K League last year at ₩1.34b ($1.2m). However, that's not a number the GS Group (who owns FC Seoul) has blushed at in the past, and if both parties were truly interested then a compromise could certainly have been made. It's happened countless times in the world of football before. By not even offering a contract, Seoul made it clear they were willing to part ways with one of their most iconic players in spite of his on field production while retaining the manager he had sparred with the previous year. A move that apparently resonated with the striker enough to set him on a path of revenge that starts just south of the capital.

To rub extra salt in Seoul fan's wounds, Damjanović is returning to Champions League in the extremely rare year Seoul didn't qualify for it. One last gasp at the international title was already in the longtime target forward's crosshairs and Seoul's front office just gave him yet more motivation. What better way to prove them wrong than by making an extended run (and potentially winning) the tournament while they have to sit at home and watch it on TV?

Nonetheless, if it was simply ACL he was after, Dejan could have signed with Ulsan, Jeju, or even less-heated rivals Jeonbuk for a shot at glory. The decision to put on Suwon blue and chase trophies is not only the most surefire way to provoke Seoul's front office, it's also runs the very real risk of tarnishing his legacy with the capital club. Regardless of his motives (legitimate or not) there will be some Seoul supporters that see his quest for revenge as a stab in the back and nullification of all he's done over eight seasons with their club. However, with his signature on the dotted line, it's quite clear it's a risk he's willing to take.

A New Era and the Tale of the Transfer Tape

I think in time we'll look back on Dejan's dismissal as the final nail in the coffin for FC Seoul's most successful era. An era that saw them capture three of their six league titles, their first FA Cup in 17 years, and appear in the Semifinal and Final of multiple AFC Champions Leagues. An era that began crumbling with a truly woeful on-field performance throughout 2017 resulting in Seoul's worst season in a decade. However, the big money, high profile era of FC Seoul was being dismantled long before Dejan put on a blue kit. While certainly more shocking, the Montenegrin's departure comes a full year after Seoul's paradigm shift began in earnest with the sale of Adriano to Chinese League One side Shijiazhuang Ever Bright.

On paper, the $4.5 million Seoul got in return for Adriano's services made it hard to argue with their decision to sell last winter. However, what they did (or more to the point: didn't do) with that money and in every transfer window since has clearly laid out a very different approach for one of Korea's most storied clubs. After winning the league, making it to the FA Cup Final, and ACL Semifinals in 2016, FC Seoul parted ways with the record-setting Adriano and midfield dynamo Takahagi seemingly to make way for the next wave of stars... but they never came. Former Suwon winger Lee Sangho and the returning Ha Daesung were decent reinforcements, but not the power players that were going to ensure Seoul stayed at the top of the table. As the winter months wore on, Seoul finally made their move for a Brazilian attacker and brought in... Maurinho. The former Jeonnam Dragon winger who couldn't even get regular minutes with the perennially mid-table side that was shipped out months later.

During the same summer window Maurinho was let go, the Seoul front office seemed poised to splash some of the cash they made in Adriano's sale to reinforce a surprisingly underperforming team. But again, the help didn't arrive. Lee Myungjoo had a solid half season after returning from Al-Ain, but the move was always a precursor to his compulsory military stint and nothing more. Iranian defender Khaled Shafiei barely saw the field, and former Ulsan captain Ivan Kovacec also failed to find regular minutes. Another window closed, and another opportunity to bolster the squad by exterior means came and went bearing little to any fruit.

And now here we are at the beginning of another transfer window and Seoul has parted ways with its top scorer for the second year in a row. Their reinforcement? A youth national teamer who's yet to play a single minute of professional club football. So what do the back to back yearly sales of top scorers, run-of-the-mill replacements, and an over-reliance on unproven youth all have in common? Unsurprisingly all of these moves have come under the leadership of Hwang Sunhong. A man famous for winning the league with an all Korean Pohang Steelers side devoid of any true "superstar." A formula he was clearly given the green light to replicate well over a year ago.

After lucking into the 2016 title and leading Seoul to their worst finish in a decade in 2017, Hwang has done next to nothing on the field to suggest he should be given the keys to the kingdom, but the folks that make those decisions clearly feel otherwise. While it certainly seems Seoul's most recent era of success has come to a close, that doesn't mean another one can't start under this plan. There's certainly precedence of a youth movement leading to domestic success. Perhaps the next era of Seoul's success will look very different to the old one and it will indeed be led by the players currently on the roster.

But by cutting ties with a proven veteran leader like Damjanović, the time for those young players to step up has been shoved forward into the here and now. There isn't a double digit goal scorer on the roster heading into 2018, and filling the 19 goal gap Dejan leaves in his absence is a tall order for any attack; nevertheless one that's relying on the apathetic Park Chuyoung and an unproven youth movement. It's a considerable risk for a club – and fanbase – that's used to being at the top of the table.

More to the point, the decision to drop Dejan leaves Seoul and its fans in the exact same spot they've been in for the duration of Hwang's leadership. Wondering where the goals are going to come from and who's going to score them. Curious what Seoul aims to achieve given the vanilla roster they've put together. Questioning what the club's ambition is and if it matches the crest they wear over their heart. If 2017 was any indicator, FC Seoul is running out of time to figure it out if they want to stay relevant in Korean football.

2 comments

  1. That last sentence put a big ol smile on my face.

    "If 2017 was any indicator, FC Seoul is running out of time to figure it out if they want to stay relevant in Korean football."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really thought "the final nail in the coffin for FC Seoul's most successful era" would get you more. ;)

      Delete

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