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The WK League opens new gates for groundhoppers

Having never seen a professional game of women's football before, this month I attended two; a national team friendly and a regular season match in the WK League. Naturally, the experience is completely different from the men's game, but it was a good opportunity to see two new stadiums (kind of).


Incheon

Incheon Namdong Asiad Rugby Field. It sounds like a football stadium in Korea already. I had attended games here before, but these were in the Asia Rugby Championship. Since Futbology only allows you to check in for football games, seeing the local football team became a priority. And they are?

Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels Women's Football Club (or, Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels WFC for short). They don't make things easy. The visitors were Seoul WFC (that's much better!).

The West Stand before the WK League meeting between Incheon Red Angels and Seoul WFC in April. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
The Red Angels are dominant. Since the creation of the WK League in 2009, they have made every championship final, losing the first four and winning the next ten in a row. Spare a thought for the luckless Gyeongju KHNP who, in any other era, would be considered a dynasty, but they've lost three in a row and four of the last five. 


Asiad Rugby Field is a 5,000-seater off the 110 Highway that forms part of the 2014 Asiad Games complex in Namdong, Incheon. Several kilometers toward Incheon Airport are the 2002 World Cup Stadium and Munhak Baseball Park. The stadium is comprised of two stands, one infinitely bigger and more aesthetically pleasing than the other.

Storm clouds are in the background before April's WK League game. The pitch was in great condition. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
The walk to the stadium from the nearby, heavily commercialized Seochang-dong was fascinating. The generic multi-story commercial buildings (usually with a convenience store, phone shop, several restaurants, a half dozen hagwons, various different types of medical centers, Pilates, and a screen golf establishment on the top floor seen in every urban neighborhood around the country) gradually faded away, replaced by small farms and garden allotments. 

In the distance, the floodlights of Asian Field loomed over a near-empty major road on the right, and the oversized Gymnasium to its left. The contrast between grey sporting infrastructure and well-kept small fields was striking. It could have been explored more, but the rain was coming down, as it always does when I watch a game of women's football.

Namdong Gymnasium with the Jangsu-cheon in the foreground. The Gymnasium was built for the 2014 Asian Games and is located across a busy road from the Rugby Field. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Behind both goals is grass, but a neat feature is the elevated pathway from the uncovered East Stand to the South side where it splits in two. Turn left to the Gymnasium and right to the much larger West Stand. Forty-five minutes before kick-off I walked this path alone. It was clear the match wasn't going to attract a big crowd, and the stadium's rather isolated location mixed with the unfavorable weather conditions meant casual walkers would not be present.

The main stand's roof begins at ground level before rising above the halfway line and curves back to the ground on the other side. In some way, it resembles the Hong Kong Stadium or John Smith's in Huddersfield, but on a much smaller scale. Asiad Rugby Field is a very nice stadium in a country full of fantastic, modern stadiums and arenas.

The elevated pathway connects the two stands at the Rugby Field with the Gymnasium across the road. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Moments before kick-off, a male cheermaster flanked by two young cheerleaders emerged to energize their section's dozen or so fans. Players' names were chanted, and we were treated to the ubiquitous 'clap-clap Incheon' and 'clap-clap goal' war cries heard across the land. Entry was free and the staff was selling ponchos, thundersticks, and other noise-making equipment outside.

Despite the rain and the late April chill, it was an occasion worth seeing. Unfortunately, a lot of WK League games are on Tuesday and Friday nights, meaning groundhoppers hoping to check into a new stadium might be out of luck.

Yongin


Earlier in April, the South Korea women's national football team (or, Korea Republic) hosted Zambia in two friendlies before this summer's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Both of these countries have qualified but the Koreans are currently ranked 17th in the world rankings and will take their place alongside Germany (2nd in the rankings), Colombia (26), and Morocco (73). Zambia, trashed in the two games, is 77th.

Taken in isolation, Yongin Mireu Stadium is a top-class multi-purpose stadium. It opened in 2017 and has a capacity of over 37,000. The sweeping roof is the most striking feature but I particularly enjoyed how the blue running track matched the color of the seats in the upper stands, placed against the otherwise dominant gray color. It is a nice touch.

I never heard of this stadium before learning of the friendlies on the KFA's Instagram page. It was a great opportunity, therefore to see two new teams and a brand new stadium.

More wet weather before a women's game in Korea. This is the entrance to Yongin's Mireu Stadium in April. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Its location, however, is far from ideal. Dug into the side of a small hill, with a golf club and several highways close by, it is out of the way, just like the fine facility in Hwaseong. At least Mireu has a stop on the Everland Line close by. If you haven't been to it before, but you know Gyeonggi-do geography well, Mireu is east of Suwon, south of Seongnam, north of Osan, and situated in the northwest corner of Yongin.

One of the major issues with the recent women's friendly games against Zambia was the choice of the stadium used by the Korean Football Association (KFA). Suwon's World Cup Stadium was used for the first friendly on a Friday night, followed by Mireu Stadium on a dark, dank, and chilly Tuesday evening. 

The KFA, to their credit, afforded these games with the same prestige as a senior men's fixture against, say, Brazil or a vital World Cup qualifier versus Iran. Much like the men's games, the team names were read out in English first by a female announcer and then in Korean by a male announcer. Pre-game, ear-splitting music reverberated off the walls of the stadium; the walk-out music was familiar and groups of children and teenagers held the flags on the field or stood next to the players.

There was a small crowd on that wet Tuesday night but I was particularly fond of the blue upper tier seats matching the running track. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
However, around the pitch in Yongin, a running track separated the sparse crowd from the field. The stadium's capacity was also far too big (Suwon holds 44,000) for the fixture and virtually nothing was for sale inside or outside the ground. Big international games at Sangam are heaving beneath the four stands as fans line up for food, beer, or national team merchandise. In Yongin, I only saw bottles of water next to a photo booth.

There were lots and lots of very clean toilets, though.

It is possible that team manager Colin Bell and his players were thrilled to play in, firstly, a glamourous World Cup Stadium that is currently used (for the time being, anyway) by K League 1 side, Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Secondly, in a modern, clean, and beautiful multi-use arena in Yongin. Certainly, both stadiums gave the impression of these being A-list international friendlies, but could they not have been better used in smaller and more centrally located stadiums?

Korean stadiums often have very wide concourses with lots of space and stuff to buy. Yongin had wide, spacious concourses, but unless you wanted a selfie with a bottle of water, there was nothing to buy. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Would it have tarnished the spectacle had Incheon or Daegu been used? Perhaps, Incheon and Daegu were not available or not interested but a smaller, more intimate ground next to rail connections would surely have been better to drum up local support before the World Cup.

Either way, thanks to the 8-team WK League now featuring on Futbology, there are new grounds to explore in previously unfamiliar neighborhoods. These clubs are Changnyeong WFC, Gyeongju KHNP WFC, Hwacheon KSPO WFC, Mungyeong Sangmu WFC, Sejong Sportstoto WFC,  Seoul WFC, and Suwon FC Women. Most of their home grounds haven't been visited yet by a Futbology user, so if you get there first, you're name will show up every time someone clicks on the stadium for more information.

FNR

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