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The fixture I've always wanted to see

This Saturday, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors hosts Pohang Steelers in a K League tie I've been waiting years to witness, away from Covid-19 restrictions. Jeonbuk and Pohang are very successful domestically and in continental competitions, and both have very different but no less beautiful stadiums. Before taking the KTX, I asked fans of both clubs to share their experiences of this fixture.


Some context first. Let's start in 2009. Life didn't begin for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors that year, but that's when their unprecedented supremacy took off. They are 9-time K League champions, all since '09. What's more, Jeonbuk Motors hasn't finished outside the top 2 since 2013. In that time, they have added a brace of Korean FA Cup trophies and a second AFC Champions League. The Jeonju-based side has dominated domestic football here in a style similar to Bayern Munich in Germany, Celtic in Scotland, and PSG in France. 

Their opponents on Saturday are Pohang Steelers. I don't have a team in K League but I like the Steelers, and it isn't for what they've achieved on the field. Their stadium, Pohang Steelyard, is an absolute gem, and this is one of the football weekends I look forward to the most. Pohang, as a city, is cool, the area around the stadium is fascinating and unrivaled. Even the drive east from Daegu is, arguably, the most beautiful in Korea. More on the city and stadium at a later date.

Pohang Steelers predate Jeonbuk Motors by nearly 20 years but they trail on trophies in the K League era (although, success was plentiful in the semi-pro years). Their last championship success was in 2013 when Jeonbuk was way down the table in, eh, 3rd. With 3 titles, they are the country's most successful in the continental AFC Champions League and nearly added a fourth in 2021, when they reached the final. 

Even bigger than all that, Saturday marks 50 years to the day since the formation of the Pohang Iron and Steel Company Football Club.

Going into Saturday's game at Jeonju World Cup Stadium, Pohang is unbeaten with two wins and two draws in four games. They're unlikely to win the title, and will probably watch through gritted teeth as their primary rival, Ulsan Hyundai, sweeps all before them and goes back-to-back. Jeonbuk Motors, however, has started much shakier, and talk of fan protests will add to the occasion. They have lost twice already.

Asking what makes this match so special will inevitably lead people to Pohang's half-century not out. In many ways, it is a shame they're not at home, in the Steelyard, marking the occasion with some wreath-laying ceremony featuring old legends, endless speeches, and re-runs of famous games on TV. But a World Cup Stadium, against a familiar foe, will be good enough I'm sure. Especially if they can leave Jeonju with all three points.

To build excitement for Saturday's showdown in Jeonju, I asked some fans of both clubs for their thoughts on the rivalry.

The opponents

This fixture is never one I look forward to from a Jeonbuk fan perspective

Matthew Binns (@Matt_Binns) is a familiar name to readers of K League United and listeners of the weekly podcast. As Editor in Chief, he understands the league as well as most people, but he's also a fan of Jeonbuk Motors. Following a familiar theme below, Matthew is wary of Saturday's opposition. "This fixture is never one I look forward to from a Jeonbuk fan perspective," Matthew says, adding that the losses bring back more memories than the victories.

"Wins against Pohang tend to be ones of mild relief at a danger averted.  If you asked me to recall any memorable Jeonbuk wins in the last nine years following them, I'd struggle. They all feel like one or two-nil wins with one likely having been a penalty.  However, I recall the losses, none more so than the embarrassment of the 5-2 in 2018. Jeonbuk were absolutely steamrolled."

Three months before that shellacking in Pohang, Jeonbuk Motors suffered, Matthew adds, "a 3-0 defeat to Pohang in Jeonju. In a year Jeonbuk broke records with their dominance, and they found it hard to get to grips with Pohang."

Lex Nande (@unclelex43) has seen his fair share of big days in the K League. Supporting a club that went from enjoying fleeting successes to being the nation's most dominant club has been some ride. But he ranks Pohang as an opponent who has caused more problems than others.  "This might show my age, but Pohang has been a team that Jeonbuk has historically had problems with, both home and away."

Jeonbuk has won half the league games in the last deacde but Lex reckons, "the 2013 FA Cup final paints a better picture; when push comes to shove, Pohang finds a way to win." Oh, dear! Pohang won that Final, on penalties, in Jeonju. Two months later, the Steelers went to Munsu Football Stadium on the last day of the season knowing only a win would secure the championship. They did win, in the fifth minute of injury time. They found a way.

"After from the first 20 minutes against Ulsan (this season), we have been playing checkers all season long. Opponents, like Pohang, play chess," Lex added. 

Zeno Jo (@Pohang_EN) has been following the Steelers for six years. To him and many other fans, the games with Jeonbuk Motors are "the second most anticipated on the fixture list, right behind the Donghae Derby versus Ulsan." One major reason, Zeno says, is because of the players Jeonbuk has snapped up from the Steelers.

"This is a matchup that is fueled by emotion for Pohang fans. The Pohang to Jeonbuk transfer pipeline is one that's been historically one-sided. Go Moo-yul, Son Jun-ho, Kim Seung-dae, Stanislav Iljutcenko, Song Min-kyu, and Lee Soo-bin are the biggest names that the Motors have bought from Pohang." Such a scenario is always difficult for fans to accept, especially given these are two heavyweights of the domestic game.

"Last season, a pre-match graphic before the Jeonbuk game showed former Pohang man Song Min-kyu accompanied by 'Steel becomes a green engine.' Pohang won the match, and their post-match graphic was captioned 'Steel rain rusts the green engine.' It was an entertaining back-and-forth between the two media teams that I hope to see more often in the K League!"

Of course, that player pathway has been received entirely differently from the other side.

"I don't really have any strong feelings towards Pohang. They aren't viewed negatively among Jeonbuk fans compared to other big clubs like FC Seoul, Ulsan, and Suwon Bluewings," says Tom Bolger (@JeonbukFanPage), who covers Jeonbuk for K League United. "This is largely because Jeonbuk has made several signings from Pohang in recent years, with many star players coming from the Steelers such as Son Jun-ho, Iljutchenko, and Song Min-kyu. They are a team Jeonbuk has regularly done business with, which has improved my view of them."

"Furthermore, Pohang has played a significant role in Jeonbuk's success in recent years. For example, their 4-0 and 4-1 wins in the East Coast Derby against Ulsan in 2019 and 2020 were crucial in Jeonbuk winning the title, given how close the title race was."

The Game


Following an indifferent start to the season, confidence might be in short supply among the home fans. Lex doesn't hold back, predicting "Pohang is going to tear us apart for an embarrassing 90 minutes.  It is not because we don't have talented and able players, but I haven't seen evidence of a will to change our way. Until we do, we are going to pay for that on the scoresheet."

Pohang is going to tear us apart for an embarrassing 90 minutes

The visitors would love a win to push them closer to Ulsan Hyundai at the summit, but this will be a significant day regardless. "Expect both sides to really go after a win in this match." Zeno, who contributes to K League United on Pohang, says. 

"Jeonbuk need points soon if they hope to challenge for the title, having started off on the wrong foot this season. Pohang will also no doubt go after the win. They have started strong, and unbeaten so far, but have larger motivations as well. Pohang will be celebrating its 50th anniversary on the day of this match, on April 1st. It kind of upsets me that it's an away match."

Tom shares Lex's pessimism and also predicts an away victory on Saturday. "It will be a difficult game for Jeonbuk, especially with the absence of Kim Jin-su, and Paik Seung-ho being a doubt. I don't see Jeonbuk getting any points from this match. The performances recently have been dreadful, and I anticipate another disappointing outing."

Matthew doesn't believe "any Jeonbuk fan goes into this tie thinking it's an easy three points" because the Pohang fixture "always has the perception of being a stumbling block."

The Stadium


Success has, naturally, seen enormous change in the game-day experience at Jeonbuk Motors. But whilst most fans are used to the seemingly endless supply of finals and medals, every season new fans arrive for the first time, hoping for similar experiences. Lex Nande knows more about this beautiful stadium than most. 

"I always sit in the Supporters' section, regardless of how trendy it has become, and flooded with more new faces than known faces. Jeonbuk fans are passionate and emotional, and the supporters' section rings with a spectrum of cries throughout the game."

how we literally went from rice to riches, or in better terms, the most decorated club in Korean football

"One thing I have always admired is the four large corner pillars. Along with the moat that circles the stadium, the stadium is referred to as the Jeonju Castle. It is crazy to think, two-time champions of Asia have plots and plots of rice fields where the parking lot ends. Big city teams laugh at this, but I think it shows the uniqueness of the team, and how we literally went from rice to riches, or in better terms, the most decorated club in Korean football."

"Jeonbuk has a great stadium. With their stadium being a World Cup Stadium, I feel as though it comes with some downsides," Zeno says, acknowledging a point many have made before. "Because it is so big, there are very few occasions when the stadium is at full capacity. As a result, it doesn't have the charm that stadiums like DGB Bank Park (Daegu) or the Steelyard have."

Well, I can't wait. I think Jeonbuk Motors will pull out a big performance to get their season up and running. 2-1 to the home side. 

If you haven't already done so, please don't forget to download the Futbology app and see where the nearest game is to you.

FNR

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