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Ansan Blaze a Trail for K League Inclusion

 

Despite a dismal season, Ansan Greeners have become the team of international inclusion, trailblazed by their hugely influential youngster: Asnawi Mangkualam. Ansan columnist Mike Brandon explains why. 

               

It was a goal heard across the social media waves. As the sopping wet ball bounced up out of Lee Sang-wook’s palm and into the upper inner netting there was a sense that Korean and Indonesian football had shifted. A minor lurch perhaps, but on the tectonic plate of a football loving nation of over 200 million, it has the potential to be huge. In fact, the insignificance of the goal itself provides a perfect contrast to just how seismic Asnawi’s name appearing on the scoresheet is. It may have been the third goal of a 3 – 1 win, in a game that moved a struggling side temporarily up to ninth place in an eleven-team league, more than a dozen points behind a play-off place, the only chance of making the season have any significance, but it might be the biggest thing that happened in the entire K league 2 2022 season.             

All this unfolded in front of the eyes of caretaker coach Im Jeong Heon, who has in a sense turned Ansan’s season around, earning nine points in his first five games. His predecessor Cho Min-kook, resigned in the wake of another dismal loss in early July, having managed just seventeen points in 23 matches, not including getting dumped out of the FA Cup to a side two tiers below Ansan in the football pyramid. The turnaround was felt literally in terms of Ansan’s Verdor fan group. The Verdor banner had been hung upside down for months prior to Cho’s sacking, before being righted again for their first managerless game in charge: another miserable defeat at home to Bucheon.      

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Yet, at this level, for a team of Ansan’s means, success comes so fleetingly that it is in the small moments that lasting memories are made. In a season where Ansan have lurched from embarrassment to calamity and back to embarrassment Asnawi’s strike, and the subsequent jubilant celebrations in a torrential summer downpour etched itself into legend. The fact that such a moment can be conjured up by a foreign player, and Kim Kyeong-jun’s neat lay-off, plays into Ansan’s narrative as the gritty team representing the foreign worker’s experience in the country. The Green Wolves became the first K League side to field five non-Korean players in their trip to Asan in June, when Robson Duarte, Thiago Henrique, and Asnawi joined Anderson Canhoto and Go Iwase on the field. Kang Soo-il was also on the pitch for that side, the only multi-ethnic Korean professional in Korea, adding to the sense that although perhaps not seeing the success they wanted, here were a team of international professionals who had made a place for themselves in Korea, and proving that old barriers are now far easier to hurdle than ever before.   

Asnawi celebrates scoring the opener against Jeonnam

And so, more than half way through what is a disastrous season in terms of results-based progress, Ansan have come to embody so much more. There may be little to talk of in terms football, save a three-nil shock win against the best defence in the league in Bucheon, but as Asnawi received the ball on the edge of the box, committed to his trademark of taking on a defender and moving the ball into space before firing off a shot, but Ansan have unwittingly set a trail for a changing Korea, and demonstrated just how powerful a representation of change professional football can be. And it was present once again a week later, as the Indonesian international charged at a beleaguered Jeonnam defence, twice losing, and twice intercepting the ball before slotting home. Such tenacity is the kind of thing that breaks down social barriers, not just defences, and this Ansan side have at least set a significant milestone in Korean professional sports.

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