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The K League Goes to Japan

Since their first ever meeting in Japan on the 5th of May 2009 it had been 3,269 days and Suwon had never beaten Kashima Antlers on Japanese soil. So it was with not much expectation that I traveled to Tokyo to watch Suwon Bluewings aim to get to the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League for the first time since 2015.

After a couple of days taking in the sights of Tokyo I made the arduous two hour journey to Kashima, a coastal town in Ibaraki Prefecture. Kashima is a remote town and the stadium itself is miles from anything of note and begs the question, how can such a successful and well followed team come from such a secluded place and how could there be anything more than a handful of supporters inside the stadium come kickoff? But, despite it being a rainy and chilly Tuesday night there were numerous Japanese fans in attendance along with a few hundred die-hard Suwon fans.

As I helped to set up the multicolored banners and flags there was real tension among those traveling fans, and some trepidation about what may happen on a very important night in Suwon's history. The club's stature in Asia has been waning for a few years now but if they could seal a place in the last 16 of the competition, then maybe the Bluewings could once again assert themselves as one of the biggest names in Asia. 

Some poor home form (two defeats and a draw from their three games at Suwon World Cup Stadium) had left Suwon with the tough task of needing to either equal or better Sydney FC's result in their final home game against Shanghai Shenhua. But despite that, the away team started the game confidently, probing at Kashima's defence with every opportunity they got.

With the backing of the smaller, but considerbaly boisterous and vocal support, Suwon grew into the game even more as time wore on. The Bluewings recorded their first clear chance when Dejan Damjanović was given space on the halfway line and played the ball to Waguininho, who had timed his run to precision. However, the Brazilian's shot was well saved by Kashima goalkeepers Kwoun Sun-tae for a corner kick. But that attack was enough to create a spark of electricity among Suwon's supporters and a real sense of belief started to build on the terrace as Suwon asserted their authority on the game. The flags were raised an inch higher and the songs were sung with a little more tempo as everyone tensely waited for an important and much needed goal. 

A goal that came in the 31st minute when Yeom Ki-hun craftily won a free-kick on the edge of the Kashima penalty area. Waguininho delivered the free-kick, a delicate finish from Dejan was enough to give Suwon the lead and send the Suwon fans into absolute pandemonium. I was hugged and embraced and as I looked around the stadium the sheer ecstasy painted onto the faces of the people surrounding me was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. There was more than just belief in their eyes now. There was a confidence and desire to see this game out and make that moment of history.

From that point on, Suwon never looked back. Their attacking impetus dissipated as the game went on, but the team's desire and commitment remained 100%. As they battled and scrapped for every loose ball, the fans in the away end were living every kick and every tackle with them. It was an atmosphere unlike any I had seen in my time in Korea. As the game got more confrontational, the Suwon fans' intensity rose too, matching any atmosphere that I have been involved in previously.

After what seemed like an eternity the referee finally put his whistle to his lips, and just like that history had been made. Suwon had finally beaten Kashima in Japan and the failures to qualify in 2016 and 2017 had been forgotten. Joy swept around the away end and I was pushed three rows forward from the mass of bodies flying around in an uncontrollable wave of excitement. But beneath that excitement there was something underlying: a feeling of relief that even when their backs were against the wall, this Bluewings team had the will to win and the bravery to execute their game plan in the tensest of situations.

Photos were taken, beers were shared and as the supporters drifted out, the band played and people jumped in unison. Moments like those are rare and precious in football, and no Suwon fan there will forget that moment for as long as they live.

Suwon did themselves – and indeed K League – proud that night with their performance. The supporters frenzied backing is testament to what the Korean league is all about. The passion and intensity in the league is it's most important attribute, and both of those were on show as Suwon made their own little moment of history in a small town in Japan.

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