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Long Read: The state of affairs at Busan IPark

 After a run of eight unbeaten matches, Busan IPark have hit a bump in the road, losing two straight matches and unceremoniously dumped out of the FA Cup in midweek. Whilst there are clear issues with the club's management on the pitch, it is perhaps problems off it that threaten to undermine recent progress made by the club. In this long read, Todd Wilde discusses the state of affairs at Busan IPark.

Two weeks ago, confidence was high in the Busan IPark camp, as the Royals went eight games unbeaten in all competions.

Two weeks is a long time in football.

With the decision to rest almost the entirety of Busan's first eleven in the FA Cup, Cho Duk-jae has laid his cards out on the table and shown that a high league position is Busan's one and only priority for the 2020 season. This is a decision that has puzzled supporters and observers alike, given that the side is without silverware in 16 years, and with the side extremely unlikely to be pulled into a relegation battle, the side would have been capable of competing on two fronts.

What now for Busan's season?

Unless Seongnam is successful in the FA Cup, it is now highly likely that fifth place in the K League will qualify for the AFC Champions League next season, given that Sangju Sangmu will be dissolved at the end of the season and cannot qualify for the competition. With Busan tamely surrendering their chances of qualifying via the FA Cup, coach Cho will now be expected to at least make his team competitive against sides in mid table and defeat those near the bottom, with the aim of leading his side into the top half before the split at the end of Gameweek 22.

This IPark side - the best many Busan supporters have seen for almost a decade - has been unfortunate to miss out on the FA Cup in 2017 and the K League 2 title in the past three years, but is now maturing, with the likes of 23 year olds Kim Moon-hwan and Lee Dong-jun prospering at K League 1 level. This side is capable of leaving a legacy for future generations, but there is a danger that Busan's season will peter out into a solid but unremarkable bottom half finish - with further danger in the near future.

Busan have just been promoted. Why is Cho Duk-jae under fire? 

Busan have won plaudits from pundits for their positive impact on K League 1 football, as the side has been competitive even against the division's top teams, giving minutes to young attacking talents such as Lee Dong-jun and Kim Jin-kyu. Whilst there has been a noticable improvement in performances as the season has progressed, Busan IPark has just three league wins, the same as 11th placed FC Seoul. Their lack of firepower up front is perhaps the biggest issue - Busan has just 48 shots on target, the second lowest in the league, only narrowly better than Gangwon FC (46).

With a recent strong run of eight games without defeat, it was assumed that Cho would continue to field a midfield three that has been vitally important to Busan's control and stability in recent games. Cho deserves credit for assembling a balanced combination in central midfield, combining playmaker Romulo, metronome Lee Gyu-seong and 19 year old Kwon Hyeok-gyu, who has been the team's breakout star this season in a mezzala (half-winger) style role.

Now that Park Jong-woo is fit, Cho is attempting to shoehorn the defensive enforcer into the line-up. Whilst Park is undoubtedly an excellent asset to the club - central to Busan's promotion campaign last season - his introduction in place of Lee Gyu-seong last weekend was a disaster, as the side's control in central midfield evaporated. Daegu easily bypassed the midfield with direct counter attacks, whilst there was virtaully no creativity from central positions as Busan were forced into wide areas to progress attacks past crowded central areas. Park wasn't much more effective in midweek, as Jeonbuk launched waves of attacks at will after his introduction at 2-1 down. 

Cho Duk-jae's tinkering has also had an impact at the side's weakest position, as the team has struggled to provide a consistent threat on the left wing, with no player being afforded a reliable run in the team at the position. It was puzzling that IPark decided not to bring in a natural left sided winger in the transfer market, with one-time centre forward Kim Seung-jun brought into the side from Gyeongnam.

It remains to be seen whether Kim can adapt into a consistent threat on the left wing, but the early signs are not promising, as he was hooked at half time against Daegu and left out of the squad for their defeat at Jeonbuk.

The club's two other signings in the transfer window were even more bizarre as 192cm Lee Rae-jun and 191cm Kim Hyun joined the club from K League 2 Ansan Greeners and K3 League Hwaseong FC respectively. Both are central forwards renowned for their aerial ability, whom have had unremarkable club careers after promising spells as youngsters.

It is certainly a concern that Cho may have prioritised certain physical attributes over signing players with a strong track record in professional football. Cho will be judged on the success of these transfers, given that it is questionable whether the players can keep up with the demands of first division football in the modern era.

What do supporters think about this transfer policy?

Cho has awakened the ire of hardcore supporters by forcing club legend Han Ji-ho out of the club on loan, when the player that made his debut as a Busan player was on course to finish his career with the club. Whilst it is understood that the player was happy to leave with first team football available at Gyeongnam, Han was in truth not far from playing at a first team level for Busan.

Han Ji-ho's banner has been displayed by the P.O.P fan group at every home game since his departure from the club

Han appears to have been frozen out by Cho, with the player stripped of the club captaincy in the off season. Even though the player has lost pace and confidence without a run in the first eleven, he was still vital to the side in last season's playoff run, and wasn't given sufficient opportunities to impress in the side this season.

To rub salt into the wound, replacement Kim Seung-jun (who has taken Han Ji-ho's number, 22) has struggled to settle into the side, whilst Kim Byong-oh - first choice for much of the season - has been in dire form in his last couple of fixtures, possessing as much threat in front of goal as a Magikarp in battle.

Is it all down to the manager?

No. Other figures behind the scenes must share responsibility for a transfer policy that has been more miss than hit in recent years.

Busan IPark has been seen as a sleeping giant of Korean football over the past four seasons, with the team consistently recording the highest attendances in K League 2 whilst failing to gain promotion on a mid table K League 1 budget. Yet, despite a relatively high budget for what is ultimately a loss making venture, the club has still been criticised by observers as underfunded and suffering from a lack of investment.

Chung Mong-kyu has been chairman of Busan IPark since 2000, leading the club to an initial spell of success before presiding over the longest barren spell in the club's history, including one relegation in 2015 and a promotion last season. Outside of the club, Chung is currently Chairman of the Korea Football Association (KFA), has served as Chairman of the K League, has been a member on the FIFA Council since 2017 (after his successful leadership of the 2017 U-20 World Cup Organising Committee) and is the Chairman of HDC Group - owners of IPark and one of the most important companies in Korea.

With HDC currently embroiled with a protracted takeover of Asiana Airlines, and Lee under pressure by the Korean government to close the takeover, Busan will perhaps continue to be treated as an underfunded, underappreciated arm of the HDC umbrella - particularly when compared to Ulsan and Jeonbuk, two much more successful sides owned by different companies spun off from the original Hyundai group.

Whilst supporters are most concerned about funding for a new stadium to replace the 92 year old Gudeok Stadium, it is a lack of funding in player recruitment that has hamstrung Busan's abilities to be competitive on the pitch in 2020. It is understood that the club is incapable of paying anything other than nominal transfer fees to bring in new talent, with IPark targeting free signings and loan deals from overseas.

Indeed, the club has struggled when it comes down to foreign recruitment in the last couple of years. Noma Sovothy and Alexsandar Susjnar were both popular figures amongst supporters last season, as both players gave blood, sweat and tears to the promotion cause, but the club was unable to bring either player in on a permanent transfer after they had previously signed on a full season loan deal.

Other foreign players signed by the club have been extremely disappointing in the past three years, with Jonaton Reis only given eight minutes of action by Cho Duk-jae this season, whilst other mercurial talents like 2018 signing Jonathon Balotelli appeared to care more about pulling girls off the pitch than scoring goals on it.

Gustavo Vintecinco has undoubtedly tried hard this season after joining from Ansan Greeners, but it does appear that the Brazilian could have benefited from one more year at K League 2 level, and has not been trusted by manager Cho Duk-jae - with 193cm centre back Park Ho-young bafflingly preferred up front as Busan failed to break down a nine-man Seongnam side earlier in the season.

K League United understands that former Daejeon winger Matheus Pato was strongly considered as an option to join the club in the summer transfer window, with the club keen to sign a player who was also in discussions with rivals Seongnam FC and K League 2 side Suwon FC. However, the club decided not to bring in the Brazilian winger at the last minute, despite the player already possessing a work permit to play soccer in Korea, with the player fully fit after training with Brasileiro Série A side Fluminese.

This decision has frustrated the player - who was committed to signing for the club and is still interested in moving to Korea in a future transfer window - and has left Busan with a foreigner spot unfilled despite an obvious need to sign a left sided winger.

Are these problems limited to player recruitment?

No, problems off the pitch have even made their way into the fan experience. The club was extremely well managed off the pitch in 2018 as Park Ho-young transformed the club into a visionary, family friendly centre of the community. Park spearheaded the introduction of pre-game autograph signings, unique game day events - such as a craft beer day where every fan received free Galmegi craft beer before the game - and half time entertainment from various high school dance clubs, as club attendances rose over 250%.

Since Park left the club, attendances have continued to rise, but activities in and around the ground have stagnated, with less emphasis given on the fan experience outside of football, even before the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head. Whilst the club has had its hands tied this season due to government restrictions, efforts to engage with the fanbase have been muted at best, with the club having a skeleton presence on Instagram and minimal updates on the club website.

This is underlined by the farcical process of ticket sales this week for Busan IPark's opening home game against Ulsan Hyundai. The club originally planned to sell tickets only in the main stand in a chessboard formation, however were forced to cancel ticket sales at the last minute on Wednesday due to a lack of social distancing in the original ticketing plan.

Tickets went on sale on Friday morning with just 574 tickets available, less than 5% of the FIFA designated capacity in a stadium that could hold 1,172 spectators at 10% capacity. Sold out after 15 minutes, hundreds of fans have missed out on one of the hottest tickets in town - widening the interest gap in what has always been a baseball city.

Compare this with the Lotte Giants baseball club, who have been in constant communication with supporters for months, particularly given the status of stadiums re-opening after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented ticket sales from going ahead. Lotte have had plans in place to re-admit fans since April, with QR scanners and several social distancing set-ups coded by developers for use on the club's in-house ticketing app. After their original plan of chessboard formation seating was criticised by the Busan Metropolitan City government, they reverted to an alternative seating layout, which was available for sale the next morning.

IPark appear to have cobbled together a plan at the last minute, not helped by a lack of designated seating numbers outside the main stand at the Gudeok Stadium. This is disappointing given that the club has had three months to number seats in the main stand and come up with ticketing plans that could account for stadium openings at different capacities.

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Is this criticism all a bit harsh?

Other sportswriters will - perhaps rightly - say this writer is being unrealistic in his criticism of Busan IPark. Cho was successful where several other managers have failed in getting IPark promoted from a famously competitive second division. Some might say that IPark should be fighting the likes of Incheon, Gwangju and Seoul right now in a relegation fight, and that Busan have overachieved by being 7th at mid season and not 11th. Others would point at the rapid improvement in defence this season, largely thanks to the off season recruitment of veterans Kang Min-soo and Kim Dong-woo.

Indeed, one area where Busan deserves heaps of praise is their investment in youth development. IPark's clubhouse facilities at Daejeo Sports Park are fantastic for a club of its size, with purpose-built facilities for youth teams at a variety of age ranges. The likes of Kim Moon-hwan have lived on site in dorms as youth players, given use of the same training facilities available to senior squad members, with individual attention dedicated to help players grow and prosper. There is a solid pipeline of youth prospects coming through the club, that will allow the club to develop homegrown talent into the first team for years to come.

So, can IPark keep these promising young players together and compete for the title?

It's looking doubtful. Busan needs to be successful now if they are to break their lack of success in recent years, due to external factors that are partially out of the club's control. The club's success in developing their many young talents has the potential to be a double edged sword. Scouts have been spotted at games even at K League 2 level, with Nike's poster boy Lee Dong-jun being tracked by several European clubs. Kim Jin-kyu has also been the subject of external interest prior to his recent injury, whilst Kim Moon-hwan - who appears to be a shoo-in at right back for the Korean National Team - has been linked with a future move to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Vultures are circling the club, but they are not just looking at team's stellar young talent. With the likes of Korean international Lee Jeong-hyeop and talismanic midfielder Romulo out of contract at the end of the season, both will expect to be renumerated properly for their contributions to the club in the past two seasons. If the club is unable to offer either player a reasonable contract, there is a real possibility that Busan will lose some of their best players to rivals for no transfer fee.

There is a real danger that the strong progress of the last 18 months could be undone, and though this writer hopes Busan will be successful and can challenge for titles in future years, his optimism is wearing thin.

Todd Wilde is a K League United columnist for Busan IPark. Todd was previously involved with the club as a member of the Busan IPark International Ambassadors in 2018.

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