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K3 League Alumni: Players Who've Benefited From Stints in Korea's Third Tier

K3 League Alumni: Kim Min-jae, Han Kyo-won and other success stories

While K League 1 and K League 2 has provided a solid platform for many Korean players to showcase their talents to the world, some have had to take an alternative route, stepping into the semi-professional K3 League to pick up valuable playing time or complete national service. Guest columnist Borja Fernández highlights some of the biggest talents playing today that owe a debt to their time spent in Korea's third tier.

Since I have had the use of reason I have always heard that "each person is a world" and it is correct, because we are all different. Football players are no exception. Some footballers take one path and others take an entirely different path to seek success in the sport we love. Many players come to professional football after leaving high school or college and have a career there for years. Some leave the country for leagues with greater impact and others seek minutes in leagues that are still in development. 

However, there are players in Korea who don't start their path in professional football (K League 1 and 2) and instead have to go down to semi-professional Korean football due to various circumstances. This article looks at players who have gone through the semi-professional leagues specifically the K3 League (formerly the National League) and are currently successful players.

Players who started in the K3 League

At this very moment there is a Korean defender who is attracting the eyes of the football world because of his tremendous performances in the Italian Serie A league but whose beginnings are different from those of other players of his level. Kim Min-jae is one of Napoli's key players, but he didn't always play in the best and fullest stadiums. 

Once he left university, Kim was unable to join Jeonbuk due to K League regulations, which led him to one of Korea's most storied teams, K3 League side Gyeongju KHNP. There he played half a season already showing a superiority with and without the ball, something that we have continued to enjoy at his following teams. Jeonbuk, Beijing, Fenerbahce and Napoli. We don't know the limit of Kim Min-jae, but the roots of his career will always be in Gyeongju.

Success isn't limited to playing for big European teams and an example of this is Jang Hyuk-jin. The current Suwon FC player is a true K League 2 legend who, according to Transfermarkt, until this season was the player with the most appearances in the Korean second division. However, his post-university career began with the now-disbanded Yesan FC, where he played for a few months before going to Gangneung Citizen. His strong showing took him to Gangwon FC in 2011, although the second half of the season was spent on loan again at Gangneung. Since 2012 his career has taken him to Gangwon, Sangju, Ansan, Gyeongnam and now Suwon FC. 

Kwak Yun-ho, another Suwon FC player, also spent time in Gangneung after leaving university, specifically two years before reaching the first division, where he has achieved a success rate of more than 90% in his tackles in 2021. 

You never know who will be the next K3 League player to make the leap to elite football, but one that has caught my attention a lot is Yangju Citizen goalkeeper Kim Seung-gun. Kim is a young goalkeeper (23 years old) who has provided security in his matches, leaving a clean sheet in 11 out of 22 K3 League matches in addition to already completing his military service

Players who went through the K3 League

We can also find cases in which a footballer reaches the professional field after finishing his formative stage, but years later he must take a step back for different reasons. Kim Hyun, a current Suwon FC player, is a great example. In his youth, he was a footballer who attracted people's attention and was valued as a player with a great future. After three years at Jeonbuk school, he joined the first team, of which he was part of two seasons, the second being a loan in Seongnam. In 2014 he joined Jeju, but in 2016 he went back on loan to Seongnam and in 2017 he served his military service in Asan. When he returned to Jeju he rarely played, partly due to injury, going out on loan again in the second half of the 2019 season. This time he headed to Japan and joined second division side Tochigi SC. In 2020 came an interesting move, as he ended his contract in Jeju and signed for the third division Hwaseong FC, where he played the first half of the season. In addition, it should be noted that he occupied the position of central defense and not the point of attack. The fact is that his good performance took him to the first division in the summer, he returned to the elite at the hands of Busan IPark and later, he established himself in Incheon and Suwon, his hometown.

There is a player in the Gangneung Citizen who has impressed me a lot and maybe in the future he will return to the K League. Baek Seung-woo started his professional career in Jeju, but came down to the K3 League in search of opportunities. It is said that sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward, and these movements can save a footballer's career.

Another player who went through Jeonbuk and Hwaseong is Han Kyo-won. On November 26, 2016, Jeonbuk was playing the second leg of the AFC Champions League final against Al-Ain FC and Han Kyo-won scored the goal that equalized and, therefore, secured the overall victory for the Korean team. However, in January 2017 he headed for the third division, although his case was different from Kim Hyun's. Han Kyo-won spent six months at Hwaseong FC fulfilling his military service and after that, he returned to the team of his life, where he has won seven league titles, an FA Cup and a Champions League since 2014. 

Another player with a great career who has passed through the K3 League is Lee Ki-je, the top assister this season in the K League 1. After graduating from university and passing through Shimizu S-Pulse, Newcastle Jets and Ulsan Hyundai, Lee Ki-je joined the Bluewings in 2018. At the end of that year he headed to the city of Gimpo to fulfill his military obligations until September 2020. In that period of time he played for Gimpo FC, where he held more offensive positions, scoring six goals in 17 games between K3 League and FA Cup.

From abroad to the K3 League

Like Lee Ki-je, there are many football players who head abroad after finishing high school and college, though not all of them go straight back to the top division. For example, Park Chan-yong, a Pohang Steelers footballer who has had a strong performance this season, joined K3 League side Gyeongju KHNP after returning from Japan. In Japan he went through three professional teams in four seasons, Ehime FC, Renofa Yamaguchi and Kamatamare Sanuki. His stay in Gyeongju lasted only one season, because, due to his good performance, he joined the Jeonnam Dragons and two years later, his current team.

In this group of players we can include two relatively similar cases. Those players are Luan, center forward of Chanwon FC who just won the league and Marko Rajkovic of Gimhae FC. The first contact that both players have had with Korean sports has been signing up for a K3 League team. Luan arrived at Gimhae in 2021 from Brazil and this year he has played in Changwon, home to the closest rival of his first Korean team. In 2022 in Changwon he has stood out with 12 goals and four assists. 

For his part, Marko Rajkovic has arrived in Korea in 2022 after passing through Serbia, Albania and Macedonia in Europe. It should be mentioned that this isn't his first contact with Asian football, since in 2020 he played for a few months at Happy Valley in Hong Kong and in 2021 for a few months at Boeung Ket in Cambodia. This season, at the age of 29, he has scored 11 goals and has provided two assists. 

Both strikers have attracted the attention of Korean soccer fans and I would not be surprised if a professional team in the country has considered signing them, even more so now that the first division teams may have more foreigners in their squads. For example, Suwon FC usually sign some players from K3 and K4 League, who knows if any of them might be next?

In conclusion, this is just a glimpse of the talent pool that can be discover in Korea's semi - professional leagues. To discover more, fixtures for next season will be available from 2023 on the KFA website.

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