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Column: See You Again in K League

Column: See You Again in K League Team K League Juventus
As soon as the final whistle blew following the Team K League versus Juventus friendly at Seoul World Cup Stadium on Friday 26th July, attentions turned to regular league play. Just a few short days after and all 12 K League 1 clubs were to take to the field for round 23 of the 2019 K League 1 season. After how well Team K League performed against a team of Juventus' stature, it would be safe to assume that those players will see us all again in K League.

All Stars

The friendly match between Team K League and Serie A giants Juventus sold out within just a few hours, such was the level of interest. This, of course, is to be expected;it’s not every day that the ‘Old Lady’ visits the Korean peninsula, in fact Juve’s last trip to these shores dates back to 1996. Furthermore, it has been a good few years since a big club from Europe went toe-to-toe with K League's best, Manchester United, with Cristiano Ronaldo in tow, visited in 2007 and 2009, whilst Ronaldo's rival Messi and his Barcelona teammates also visited in 2007, taking on Suwon Bluewings.
Seeing an array of stars who have multiple league titles, domestic and continental cup wins to their names, week in week out with countless international caps to boot, with your own eyes and not on television, is not something which can easily be done here in Korea. Except it is.

The ‘Fan 11’ which made up most of Team K League consisted of Jo Hyeonwoo, Lee Yong, Yun Youngsun, Osmar, Park Jooho, Mix Diskerud, Cesinha, Kim Bokyung, Lee Donggook, Park Chuyoung, and Adam Taggart. Between those eleven players alone there are 15 league titles, 17 domestic cups, several continental cups, upward of 370 international caps, and 11 World Cup appearances. It may not be an ‘all star’ game by name, but the Team K League is made up of stars in their own right.

For a team which trained once and had never played with each other before, the performance from those 11 individuals was incredible. There was also a real sense of team spirit as was evident when Team K League scored, Cesinha's Ronaldo impersonation following his goal along with Eder of Seongnam and Ulsan Hyundai's Kim Bokyung was evident of that. Then, when Adam Taggart made it 3-1, the first person to congratulate him was Super Match rival Park Chuyoung. It was heart-warming to see these players really proud to represent K League and in doing so, made us proud too.

Speaking in the mixed zone after the game, K League United caught up with Osmar who said: "It was a really nice time with all of these guys [Team K League], we spent some time yesterday [Thursday] in a hotel and in training. Honestly, I didn't expect that [the team spirit]. I was thinking maybe I was going to be a little bit more alone or maybe with [Park] Chuyoung. The Korean players, they know each other for a long time, and foreigners we hung out really good and we said before the game that it was very important to keep organised. The organisation of the team, the squad, is most important thing because usually these games everyone wants to show themselves and go individual. We understood what we had to do."

For the full interview, tune into the K League United Podcast this Thursday.

Focus on Juventus

From the fans’ perspective, the focus was on Juventus and one man in particular, Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo, or 'Naldu-hyeong' (Big Brother ‘Naldu), as Korean fans once referred to him as, was the star attraction. It was stipulated in the agreement between K League, Juventus and the company which organised the event, The Fasta, five-time Ballon d'Or winner Ronaldo must play a 'substantial portion of the match', in other words 45 minutes. Despite such contractual agreements being in place, Ronaldo didn’t play a single second. The former Real Madrid and Manchester United star was supposed to take part in an autograph signing event too but pulled out so that he could prepare for the match, complaining of muscle fatigue. In Nanjing, China on Juventus took on Serie A rivals Inter Milan in the International Champions Cup, drawing 1-1 before edging past the Nerazzurri on penalties. Ronaldo played the whole match and even scored the equaliser that cancelled out Matthijs de Ligt's first half own goal. It begs the question, given that Juventus were well aware of their contractual obligations to field Ronaldo for 45 minutes, 'why was the 34 year-old not brought off to prevent any risk of muscle fatigue or injury?'

However, with kick off looming large, few would have expected what was about to unfold. As is the norm, the team sheets were released around one hour before kick off and distributed to people in the press box at Seoul World Cup Stadium. The left-hand side with Team K League was filled in, the right where Juventus' lineup should have been, was blank. The Juventus team arrived 15 or 20 minutes after the game was supposed to have kicked off, meaning that by the time the game was able to get underway, it was already nine o’clock. Using laptop computers, mobile phones, and tablets to tune into the live broadcast on KBS2 was the only was to see what the Juventus lineup was until a representative from The Fasta scurried around the press box hurriedly handing out hand-written team sheets. An Italian journalist to my right thought it was the substitutes because Ronaldo’s name was omitted from the list. ‘He’ll play the second 45 and will come on at half time’ is what was surmised from that information. Alas, Ronaldo did not play and this left a sour taste in the mouths of those who had paid a lot of money and come from all over the country to see him play. It was supposed to be a game for Juventus to build their brand in Korea, they did little else other than alienate themselves from a potentially lucrative market and strengthen the support for Team K League. At 3-1 it looked like they were going to do it, and if so many changes weren't made in the second half, they would have seen the game out. But, the result doesn't matter, the performance meant that it was a resounding success for K League.

See You Again in K League

With around five minutes of the 90 remaining, a banner was unveiled to read 'K리그에서  다시 만나요', or 'See/meet you again in K League.' Whilst there were a plethora of K League fans in attendance, doing their best to wear their team's colours and fly the flag for K League. In addition, there were media outlets in the Sangam press box who rarely pay attention to the domestic league here, some who will perhaps never come back. But, there are a multitude of reasons why we all need to keep going back to watch K League.

Cost of Entry

Ticketing for the Juventus match began at 30,000 Korean Won ($25), all the way up to 400,000 Korean Won ($340) for the 'Premium S' seats which included a buffet. The inhabitants of Seoul World Cup Stadium, FC Seoul, charge 14,000  Korean Won ($11.80) for anywhere on the North or East Stands, with the West Stand at 20,000 Korean Won ($17). Season tickets are only 150,000 KRW ($127) meaning that for the same price as one of the premium seats for the Juventus friendly, two people could watch FC Seoul for an entire season and have change left over for a scarf each.

K League is value for money, and those who watched the Juventus friendly will have got a preview as to the level of talent which is on offer; all three Team K League goals were excellent in their own right. FC Seoul's Osmar opened the scoring with an absolute rocket from distance after dispossessing Gonzalo Higuaín on the halfway line. The versatile Spaniard carried the ball forward before unleashing a stunning strike into the top corner. Whilst being a centre back or defensive midfielder, it may be assumed that goals such as these aren’t in Osmar’s locker. However, for those who were at the Super Match on 16th June will know that the former Buriram United man very much does has it in his locker and it wouldn't be at all surprising if the 31 year-old adds another couple of goal of the season entries before the year is out.

FC Seoul’s Super Match rivals Suwon Bluewings have the K League’s leading goalscorer, Adam Taggart. Taggart came off the bench at half time to fire team K League into a 3-1 lead with an instinctive strike, typical of the Socceroo from the edge of the box.  However, before going 3-1 up, team K League regained the lead through Daegu FC’s mercurial forward Cesinha who fired into the far corner emphatically with his right foot. The Brazilian is a genuine contender for MVP this season and has been in the form of his career whilst in a sky blue shirt. This season Cesinha has eight goals and four assists in K League, has made the most shots in the division, had the most number of shots on target with 41%, the most shots from outside the box and the most shots from open play. This is just three players from a talented squad of 20. The K League is full of players like this who can be watched week in week out for less than 15,000 Korean Won per ticket.

Media Coverage

At Sangam, or most press boxes in K League for that matter, there is seldom a desk shortage, even at the Super Match or games between big clubs such as FC Seoul, Ulsan Hyundai, or Jeonbuk Hyundai. This is not to say there is a low level of interest because there isn't but the first Super Match following Dejan Damjanović’s move from FC Seoul to Suwon Bluewings last year, for example, had a modest amount of journalists in attendance considering the magnitude of the occasion. This is one of the league’s biggest stars, if not the biggest, making a move to a big rival and still seats were plentiful in the stands and in the press area.

This was not the case on Friday night for the Juventus friendly. Every single desk was filled and the game was sold out and so the question is, 'where are these people for K League games?' The prospect of interviewing Ronaldo or Gianluigi Buffon enticed many media outlets to dust off the rarely used desks in the media area but selling Juventus is easy, certainly easier than doing so for a regular K League game. But there are stories to be told throughout the league, where are these people for the visit of Sangju Sangmu on a November Wednesday night?

For the reasons already outlined K League already has a plethora of talented players. It could even be argued that Team K League wasn’t even the best of what the league has to offer. Players such as Dejan Damjanović, Ricardo Lopes, Moon Seonmin, Lee Changmin, Junior Negao, Kim Seungdae, Ikromjon Alibaev and Go Yohan, to name just a few will all have justification to feel hard-done-by. These players deserve respect and with more media coverage, the better the league becomes. Of course, there are hard-working media outlets that are doing great work but the excitement shouldn't be there just when a big European team comes to town. See you again in K League.

This column was a Patreon-first article. If you would like to gain early access to articles like this, as well as recieve a whole host of other benefits, then you can become a K League United Patreon here.

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