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Seoul shows up to salute its heroes

A last-minute, early morning family engagement scuppered my plans to take in the renowned beauty of Cheonan and their lunchtime kick-off with Gimcheon Sangmu. It would, after all, have been a new stadium and one step closer to a coveted K League 2 completed league badge on Futbology. There were alternative options and I choose the road most traveled because of the reports that tickets were selling fast.

Sometime midweek, FC Seoul announced on social media that more blocks of seating would be opened up for their Round 6 match versus Daegu FC. How could this possibly be, I thought. Are Seoulites finally falling in love with their team again? Are tickets only a fiver? Will there be free beer and chicken? With my tickets bought for Cheonan, I had hoped this trend might continue when the Bluewings are in town later this month. Then Cheonan was off.

Turns out pop singer and trot star Lim Young-woong was booked in to wave at fans and sing a couple of songs. Even though this was the primary reason for the expected large turnout, the opportunity to see a club football game in front of a genuinely big crowd was too big to turn down when lunch with relatives ended.

Towards the end of the second half, the club announced on the big-screen TVs that 45,007 had paid in to see the game (that figure appears to have been revised upwards based on Seoul's Instagram posts after the game). The noise which greeted this announcement was as loud as any for one of Seoul's three goals and thousands of people inside the stadium pulled out their phones to take a photo of the attendance figure on the TV.

This was, you'll be unsurprised to learn, the biggest attendance at a club game, for baseball or football, in Korea since the start of Covid-19. 

Lim Young-woong entertains the 45,000-strong crowd at half-time of Saturday's K League 1 clash with Daegu FC. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
So, who is Lim Young-woong? I'm not the right person to answer that question, but Wikipedia says Lim is a "trot, ballad, and pop singer, entertainer, and YouTuber." I had heard of Lim before, because his given name, Young-woong (영웅) means 'Hero', which is the name of his debut studio album. It was advertised in every public space last year. Lim's entrance just before kick-off was greeted with ear-splitting screaming. He delivered a few words and was ready to walk back down the tunnel before the MC reminded him to pump up the crowd further with the infamous Korean battle cry......

"FC Seoul 화이팅~~~!!!"

As Lim made his way off the field, the fans in the West Stand rose in appreciation. His face was regularly on the big screen TVs (too often, to be honest) but again, the crowd loved it. When he returned at half-time to perform two songs with dancers, Seoul World Cup Stadium rocked to its very foundations. Lim's appearance might not appeal to everyone, but it was clearly a major success.

Supporters bask in the spring sunshine during the second half of Saturday's game against Deagu FC. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Saturday was Seoul's third game of the 2023 season. On matchday 1 against Incheon United, 22,204 spectators were in attendance. Against defending champions Ulsan Hyundai, 20,549 paid through the gates. Crowd numbers were rising anyway and the warmer temperatures will always entice part-time supporters. The final figure for the Daegu game was more than both of those games combined. But was it all down to Lim? 

Let's look at this through a glass half full. From the various vantage points I had on Saturday, it didn't appear like the majority of the crowd was there solely for the music. Most - if not all - stayed in their seats for the entire 90 minutes to enjoy the football spectacle, too. 

The West Stand at Seoul's World Cup Stadium. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Many in attendance may be lapsed FC Seoul fans, who had to give up their support of the football team due to family commitments or other issues. There might also have been a large number of infrequent match goers, like families with young children, and both of these groups used the occasion of Lim's guest appearance to return to the football stadium on this day.

So how does Seoul go about enticing them back? The reality is there will be a drop-off for their next game, even if it is against Suwon Samsung Bluewings. But the day could not have gone any better. The weather was nice and Seoul bagged three first-half goals for the bumper crowd to enjoy. Added to that, several past or present Korean national team players were on the pitch. Striker Hwang Ui-jo belatedly opened his Seoul account from the penalty spot. Na Sang-ho scored a second midway through the first half and Ki Sung-yueng, whose name always draws a big cheer when read out before the game, started in midfield.

General view of the field from above the North Stand. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
They may have also stumbled on a new crowd favorite in goalkeeper Baek Jong-beom. After a couple of awkward attempts to play the ball out from the back were met with a collective groan from those in the stands, Baek made several top-class saves late in the first half and right through the second. After one particular stop, it was noticeable that half the Seoul team sprinted to their young keeper to congratulate him. During the end-of-game celebrations in front of the North Stand, the home fans repeatedly chanted Baek's name.

Obviously, the K League clubs can not afford to bring celebrities to the field before each game. But the knock-on effects must have been enormous. How many extra jerseys, scarves, or training gear were sold at the club's store in the Fan Park? On the field, in the dugout, and up in the executive suites, the day was an enormous success for FC Seoul.

Throughout the rest of the weekend, various news, sports, and entertainment websites were publishing videos and images of delighted football and music fans at the stadium. With some tickets priced at ₩14,000, this was a cheap way to see a celebrity perform on the same field as some of the best footballers currently plying their trade in Korea. 

Plus, it is really cool to see a bumper crowd at a Korean club game again.

FC Seoul fans celebrate a big three points. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
It helps, too, that the team is winning games again. The hardcore fans will always be there but some supporters are fickle. Following Daejeon Hana's first loss of the season, the win over Daegu FC ensured FC Seoul close out the weekend in the third spot after 6 games. The more successful a team is, the more likely fans will show up.

Not everyone will be happy to see a celebrity taking centre stage at a football game, but anything to help boost attendance and drive up revenue should be explored.


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