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Column: Fewer games will lead to an increase in quality

It has been a long and gruelling season for everyone involved in K League. The amount of midweek fixtures has, at times, made it hard to keep up. The players are exhausted and this has affected the quality of matches. Moving forward, those at the top need to take better care of the players.

Thankfully, post-split there's only one round of midweek fixtures. Midweek games were something looked forward to and enjoyed as they helped break up the week but for the last few seasons, games on a Tuesday or Wednesday have become something to endure. For the players, too, they must be dreaded. 

K League is a fast-paced and physical league and playing at this level of intensity, at 200 miles per hour, can take its toll on the players. This year, with a winter World Cup in Qatar just around the corner, some of the busiest players in K League will have been on the go for 11 months of the year. The Jeonbuk and Ulsan contingent, for example, having had to fly halfway around Asia for a condensed AFC Champions League campaign and begin the season in February, will have to keep going into December as Korea's last group match against Portugal is on December 3rd.

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There are too many games and too many in the summer months. Korea is extremely humid throughout July and August yet this seems to be the period where there are more matches. Of course, in 2022, this isn't entirely K League's fault. The World Cup in Qatar, which is due to start on November 20th, means that the domestic season in Korea needs to be wrapped up before that. 

In the previous five seasons, the regular K League 1 season was wrapped up in December on three occasions (5th December 2021, 1st December 2019, 2nd December 2018) and in November twice (1st November 2020, 19th November 2017). The promotion-relegation playoff is usually played a while after though, mostly at the end of November or in December.

Having to cram a full season in before November 20th has meant giving fans more midweek games but for the players, it's less recovery time. Not only does it mean they have little or no time to recover physically but there's no day off as preparation for the next match begins more or less straight away. 

In a unique situation like this, K League ought to have put on fewer games and play a shortened season. There are enough rules in K League in place to benefit the national team such as no foreign goalkeepers, the foreign player rule in general limiting teams to 4+1+1, and the U22 rule designed to give young players more experience at an early age so that they are ready for the national team much sooner. So why not play a 2020-style reduced season of 27 rounds?

In our recent interview with him, Lee Seung-woo pinpoints this as being one of the main downsides to K League and believes that players not being 100% hinders the league's growth.

"In K League, from playing for almost a year now, we have to play during such hot weather. This actually seems to prevent the players from performing at 100%. There are fans who enjoy the high performance of the players, which allows the league to prosper. Had we been able to perform at 100%, and played in a stylish way, fans might enjoy the league more. However, the weather’s too hot and there are too many matches to play, which can be physically challenging for players."

Gerso Fernandes, too, commented on the schedule in our recent interview. The question posed to him was whether it was hard for players to be at their best when there are games every three days.

"Yes, it's very difficult," he says adding: "And we players have thought and we do want to do something about it. And hopefully, they will make a change for next season because it's really tough. And I remember one of the games away and especially for us, we have to travel so much because we are in Jeju. We played against Gimcheon. They were flying and we lost 4-0. And I was like, 'I can't run, I am so tired.'" 

The game in question, a Round 20 loss to Gimcheon was Jeju's fourth match in 15 days. To the fans this might have looked like Jeju couldn't be bothered, like Gerso too just didn't fancy it on that occasion. He's K League's second-highest earner behind Cesinha, but can he do it on a hot and humid Tuesday night in North Gyeongsang? Gerso played an hour in that game before being replaced by Jonathan Ring with the score already 2-0 to Gimcheon. He admits that the summer months have taken their toll.

"The summer gets so hot, even worse to recover and get in good shape. And I was just like, yeah, the schedule makes no sense. Because now players are so tired and no one can really run and then people watching the game can really have a good time because players are so tired and can't have a competitive game because it's difficult. So yeah, I do remember having thoughts like that. Because we play like every three to two days."

Gerso and Lee Seung-woo are not the first, of course. Dejan once said to me that he wondered why the league is trying to "kill us" with all these midweek fixtures in the summer. Recently, it was reported that 93% of the current crop of domestic K League players were against the idea of increasing the foreign player quota from 3+1+1 to 5+1. Clearly, players are worried about losing their jobs but if the K League season is this relentless then it might be a hard sell anyway for other foreign players looking to play in Asia.

Whether K League does switch to an increased foreign quota remains to be seen but what is clear is that next season, K League needs to look after its players better. There'll be no World Cup to worry about but there is the AFC Asian Cup which Korea will be looking to host. The powers that be need to have a long hard think about how to approach this. The overall product will be of higher quality if there are fewer midweek games and more time for players to recover.

[READ: 2022 K League 1 Final Round Fixtures]

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