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"It is our chance to prove that Suwon is our city"

On Saturday, March 11th, Suwon Bluewings made the short drive across town to their former home at the Sports Complex. It was an unhappy return but their fans and players have become used to that. The new season was only three weeks old but high-profile games had already taken place in Seoul, Pohang, and Ulsan. Now that the remaining Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, it was a perfect opportunity to see what this derby means to fans on both sides of Suwon's football divide.

One of the great delights about visiting a football stadium is the pre-game expectation and buzz. A local derby usually takes that to another level and in Suwon last weekend, that was certainly the case. The sun was beating down with the temperatures hovering in the low 20s for the entire game. From afar, it looked like the visitors, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, were the home team, given the sheer number of blue Samsung jerseys on the surrounding streets.

The blue and white Puma jerseys emblazoned with various Samsung products and BMW Deutsch Motors look slick on the field. In the stands, the banners and flags cover every inch of wall space and hang next to that of the Frente Tricolor, the main supporters' group.

Save for the opinions of their obvious rivals, I'm not sure what the rest of the league makes of the Bluewings and their traveling fanbase. However, they certainly put on the impression of being a domestic giant when they invade their corner of a stadium somewhere on the road.

Not for the first time in a K League game in this stadium, the home fans spent the first 20 minutes of the match with their heads turned facing the visitors. Firstly, the applause which greets the arrival of the band got most people's attention. Following this were the supporters moving through their full repertoire of mostly catchy songs and chants. They were putting on a better show than the 22 players on the field.

The local curiosity about this club's cheering culture was also evident at the Anyang Stadium during the first leg of the relegation promotion decider last October. Home fans were just as keen to take videos and photos of the visiting fans as of the on-field action. The Bluewings are basically viewed as some fascinating foreign opponent, as if they're singing in a different language that no one else understands.

Suwon Bluewings fans display their flags and banners during another derby day nightmare at Suwon Stadium.

But this is the intriguing part of the Suwon derby. Even after Suwon FC doubled their lead early in the second half, there wasn't much gloating or sledging from the home fans in the main family stands. Perhaps there was elsewhere in the stadium. When the final whistle went, and Suwon FC had won the game 2-1, there was a mixture of muted applause and booing from the away end. The home fans stayed around a little longer to salute their heroes.

So, what does this game mean to fans of both teams?

Tim Forrester has been following the Bluewings for 10 years. It hasn't always been fun supporting one of the country's most successful clubs. Last season, Suwon hovered over the cracks but somehow didn't fall through, relying on a dramatic extra-time goal to beat Anyang FC and avoid a first relegation. Despite this fixture not carrying the same weight of importance as, say, the Super Match versus FC Seoul or clashes with Jeonbuk Motors, the derby is still a very special day on the calendar.

"I think the Suwon derby is definitely a day that Suwon Bluewings fans and myself really look forward to in the year," Tim says, before adding "it is our chance to prove Suwon is our city. The fans really want to go to these games and create a decent atmosphere." On this occasion, it didn't pan out that way, but the Bluewings have enough history and success to make such claims.

Strangely enough, the Bluewings have a miserable record in their former stadium. It was from here, after all, they claimed the first of two AFC Champions League titles, beating Japan's Jubilo Iwata in the final. In 2022, they were beaten twice (3-0 and 4-2) in this stadium. In fact, you have to go back to October 2016, during Suwon FC's maiden K League 1 season, for their last win here. They have now lost 4 straight in this stadium.

Despite the unfavorable record, the Bluewings have a pre-game tradition that will return now. "Pre-covid, Bluewings fans would march from Big Bird (the World Cup Stadium) to Suwon FC's stadium and finally things like that are starting to happen again." Cheering culture is a huge part of Korean sports and some clubs are just more well-known for it.

The hosts, Suwon FC, are less well-known for cheering. They have, in fairness, only existed as a professional club for a decade (for 10 years prior, they held onto amateur, development status), and this is only their fourth season in K League 1. They are elbowing their way into the national football consciousness, helped by some David versus Goliath performances, bringing home Korean wunderkind Lee Seung-woo and forming 50% of a genuine derby match-up.

A day to remember for the Suwon FC fans in the North Stand.

Their red-blue home colors are sharp and their jerseys will be accompanied by 20th-anniversary badges for this season. Inside the stadium, they have 4 cheerleaders leading the chanting in the East Stand and, behind the goals on the North side, a small temporary stand for their supporters. WE ARE SUWON FC is printed across the front.

The actual game was nothing special but as Peter Rempel, a Suwon FC fan noted, "you could see it means a lot to the players. Lars (Veldwijk, the striker) looked like he lost his mind when we scored. He was super pumped." There is no question about which game is the biggest in the eyes of Suwon FC fans. "The derby is definitely one of the biggest highlights since we went up to K League 1." For Peter and many Suwon FC fans, 2016 was a year they never imagined.

"I didn't really think Suwon FC was going to get promoted or that it would grow into this (level of support). When we went up in 2016 it was a dream to beat the Bluewings." That was Suwon FC's first season in the top flight and now "it helps that we've done really well in the derby recently."

The atmosphere was completely different, outside the stadium as well. Both sets of supporters made their way to the team buses, but, likely, for very different reasons. Suwon FC fans were bouncing in unison, celebrating a huge win over a local rival to kickstart their season. The Bluewings, meanwhile, were also in the vicinity of their team bus. Were they there to offer support or express their disappointment? Or both?

After a 2-1 win over their rivals, the Suwon FC fans await the players and bask in the enjoyment of three points won. 

Did the derby live up to expectations from a neutral point of view? Yes, it probably did. Ticket prices are not expensive and you can drink beer in your seats. There's also some good chicken available at the food trucks behind the North Stand. The atmosphere from the visiting team's fans was cool but it was also exciting to see how much it meant to fans of Suwon FC to beat their illustrious rivals.

As we approach a new weekend, Suwon Bluewings will look to get their season up and running when the newly promoted Daejeon Hana Citizen arrives at Big Bird. They might be struggling, but it won't stop their fans from following them around the country.

"I love away days," says Forrester. "They're always a good chance to get out and see the country. Being from Newcastle in Australia, it is a lot harder to get to away days because of the distance and cost. So, in Korea, being able to get anywhere within a couple of hours is a real treat for me." Where's the best place to visit? "Pohang's Steelyard. The Steelyard has a pretty unique atmosphere and every time I've been down there, I've loved it."

The Bluewings visit the Steelyard on April 25th and the next edition of the Suwon derby will be at the World Cup Stadium on June 3rd. It'll be fascinating to see whether the Bluewings will have proved the city of Suwon is theirs. Or, will Suwon FC continue their recent derby domination?


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