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Cupset: No Wolf in this Fight

 

For those without a team remaining at the quarter-final stage, what meaning does the FA Cup carry as a competition? Fans and clubs appear to take different viewpoints...

When Pohang take to the field in Gwangyang for their quarter-final clash with Jeonnam on Wednesday evening, Ansan fans may well be going over the lost permutations of a potential cup run. The Greeners have never made it beyond the final 32 since their inception as a K League club in 2017, and for long-term Ansan fans, failure or rather seeming club indifference to the FA Cup goes back further. This leads to a pressing question: why do some clubs not bother with the cup? After the excitement of lower league teams Hwaseong and Daejon Korail making it to the semi-finals and final respectively in 2019, the cup represents a fantastic opportunity to put clubs on the map, and also give the fans something to get excited about and remember. In this piece I will mull over the disappointing history of Ansan in the FA Cup and why it represents the most memorable games as a fan.


The Meaning of the Cup

Domestic cup competitions are viewed through both romantic and pragmatic lenses. Take the FA Cup in England, the world’s oldest football competition, it provides the opportunity for teams well apart on the football pyramid to meet on the same level. Taking this from a fan perspective of a lower league club, it is about creating memories and giving purpose to those trips to the stadium. While hoping to finish in a play-off spot is the highest hope at the outset of any season for a club of Ansan’s stature, the cup offers a chance to go to new places and see new teams, rather than the same ten clubs faced four times a year in the league. That includes the challenge of even locating some of the stadiums further down the pyramid, a guaranteed good day out, to glamorous trips to the big stadiums and crowds of the K League 1 clubs so watching the team put in dismal performances every season in the cup brings with it great frustrations.


Memories

From my own experience I have some good memories of the Greeners era in Ansan on the pitch, the near-miss in the play-off run of 2019 and a few select victories, but none of these compare to the excitement of former Ansan iterations. While the Police era did bring the K League 2 title (or rather K League Challenge) under the guise of Ansan Mugughwa, it also brought an away trip to FC Seoul in 2016. Going down 2-1 at the Seoul World Cup stadium was a cherished memory and would be the last time an Ansan would face top tier competition. K League 1 fans may sneer, as well as point out that a trip to FC Seoul might be on the K League 2 calendar next year, but for lower league fans, this is the only chance to see the big sides with any meaning attached to the game. Going back further in the mists of time… well a decade anyway, and a much small-scale cup saw Ansan Hallejujah regularly taking on top tier sides in the cup which was usually a season high point. While these fixtures usually ended in defeat, they offered a chance to see famous players and think what might have been, such as the disastrous own goal by Sin Jae-pil against Ulsan in 2011. This was also the one chance to see a former top league star play at the Wa Stadium competitively: being Seol Ki-hyeon, formerly of Reading. The only time an Ansan side has ever beaten higher tier opposition also came in the Hallelujah period, when Incheon United were taken to penalties and beaten in 2008.

None of these reminiscences are possible during the Green Wolves era.  Instead the Greeners have been knocked out by lower league opposition twice in five years, and had a bit of a scrape this year against 4th tier Yangpyeong who had to move their match to the Wa Stadium due to Covid restrictions. Two defeats to Asan and one to Daejeon make up the regular knock-outs with defeats by then National League Gangeneung City, and K4 side Hwaseong being the other terminus points for a cup run. The defeat by Hwaseong in 2019 sticks out as perhaps symbolising the entire ambivalence toward the cup, with the match kicking off two minutes early, the whole match had a sense of: “Let’s just get this over with.”

Ansan celebrate scoring against Jeonnam in August.

Ambivalence

When the tournament route was laid out at the beginning of the 3rd round this year, it would have been easy to imagine Ansan beating Asan at home, attempting an upset against Pohang (okay, unlikely), and then be travelling down south to face a beatable Jeonnam team that would leave the path to the semi-finals. Instead Ansan fans, like many supporters of other sides, will be looking at the cup not as one of excitement, but rather missed opportunity. Even a heavy beating by Pohang would have been a highlight compared to what has become a battle to try and finish mid-table in the K League 2, raising the question: what are second division sides actually playing for?

The relative financial rewards are there for progression in the competition. The winners go straight into the Asian Champions League group stages with a modest 300 million won in the bank as well, something more attractive to the lower leagues than the top tier. So, when Ansan deployed a side which featured an all new midfield and front line and a reshuffled back three against Asan in the cup, it was another sense of déjà-vu. This was one of the few games this season not feature Kim Ryun-do, Go Iwase or Lee Sang-min, not to mention many other regulars. While giving other players a chance is necessary, this was a competitive match that the side needed to win, not a pre-season friendly.

The question for clubs like Ansan needs to become a demand: take the Cup seriously. The fans deserve it.

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