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A wander around Bucheon Stadium

It is almost 20 years since Bucheon SK left for Jeju island. Their departure stripped Bucheon Stadium of K League 1 status and the ground hasn't been back in the big time since. But Bucheon FC 1995 could be about to change all that. What is their stadium like and why is it an intriguing venue in Korea?

Bucheon Stadium is a strange experience. There's a football game taking place on fresh-cut grass but around the pitch is a color-faded, crumbling, dusty bowl supported by giant concrete pillars from another era. A large multi-purpose venue that the bustling and growing satellite city of Bucheon must have been so proud of when it was completed. 

A little bit of history

Like so many other stadiums, it opened in 2001 but wasn't included on Korea's bloated 10-stadium list for the following year's FIFA World Cup. It took 12 years to build at a cost of $88 million.

Bucheon probably would have looked ahead of its time had the gates not opened at the same time as the World Cup Stadiums. It has the customary running track built in local government-constructed arenas, but unlike many others, there's roof coverage on all four sides (a rarity in K League 2), and the official capacity of over 35,000 spectators meant it was big enough to later host an international friendly against Venezuela.

Exterior walls of Bucheon Stadium. The blue running track outside the walls in the foreground. Nice crest. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
There was a team ready to move in as soon as the last drop of paint was added. Bucheon SK was representing the local city but playing in Seoul's Mokdong Stadium, previously the home of Anyang LG Cheetahs (later FC Seoul) and the current temporary home of Seoul E-Land FC. Mokdong is only 10 km from Bucheon, but Bucheon is a city in its own right, surrounded by Seoul and Incheon.

Bucheon SK stayed until the end of the 2005 season, finishing bottom on two occasions (thankfully there was no relegation) but advanced to the semi-final and then final of consecutive FA Cups. In 2006, they suddenly uprooted and moved into the vacant Jeju World Cup Stadium.

Bucheon woke up to life without a club and a new stadium without a tenant. A group of supporters set up the new club, as we know it today, in 2007 to compete in the semi-professional national leagues. In 2012, they became fully professional, taking their place in the inaugural 2013 K League 2 (K League Challenge), and have been there ever since.

The Stadium

What fascinates me about these enormous multi-use venues is how much space and personnel are devoted to hosting a second-tier football game with a small crowd. Bucheon Stadium is big! A running track around the pitch extends the stadium's total land space. Similar to other grounds, there is a lot of staff at these games. Two-person teams scan tickets, check bags, and direct people where to go. In the background, men in suits frantically talk into their jacket sleeves to relay some apparently crucial information. 

At Bucheon Stadium, the effects of the running track are minimized by two temporary stands on the North and East sides of the ground. Hermes, the Bucheon Supporters' Club, occupies the stand behind the goal, and most match-going fans sit in the East Stand with foldable seats. The VIP section is in the main West Stand and away fans are also situated in the original stadium structure on the south side.

The original seats are a rather drab light blue and white combination but the temporary stands are decorated in the home team's far more stylish red and black blend. Not just the seats, but the wallpaper at the rear. Bucheon's home strip is the best in the division, and their crest isn't too bad. Red and black never fails.

I love the design work on the temporary stands. This one features Hermes, the Supporters' Ground, on the North Terrace. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
In their 6 home games so far this season, 15,613 fans have paid through the gates at Bucheon Stadium, at an average of 2,602. At the recent midweek clash with Chungnam Asan, just shy of 2,000 fans, including 20 in the away end, showed up. Conceivably, all those present could have sat in one of the two temporary stands. There was no real need to sit in the light blue and white seats.

Match day in Bucheon

After exiting a train at Bucheon Stadium Station on Line 7, fans walk by a club shop (closed for my visit) underground and several posters advertising the upcoming fixtures. Once you reach ground level at exit 2, there's a neat display board with information about the next home game, who it is against, and when.

Display board outside Bucheon Stadium Station. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Supporters typically follow a narrow path through some trees that veers right to avoid a park where pets housed in apartments all day can roam freely. This is your first glimpse of the ground, nestled against the larger and more colorful Wonmi-san. Around the stadium, empty shop fronts indicate a site that's not buzzing with economic activity. 

The ramps outside lead visitors to a running track that completely surrounds the stadium (in addition to the track inside). Paint on concrete has washed away and in other places, design and art have completely faded. Old Bucheon city mottos are barely visible on the ground. It has the appearance of a once clean and modern facility, but work never went into maintaining that.

Entry ramps are covered in faded signs like this. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Inside the stadium isn't better. Similar to other grounds at this level with temporary stands, supporters are directed to the original stadium structure to use the toilets. And, in Bucheon, this is when the stadium's decay becomes noticeable. "Welcome to Bucheon" graffiti is just about visible. As you climb up a set of iron stairs to access the original East Stand, the concrete steps are cracked and in need of repair.

The seats are covered in, what looks like, thick dust or other spillages and stains. The East stand is completely empty, save for a lone cameraman high up to get a view of the field above the temporary stand. A diamond pattern is created on the concrete floors from the floodlights on the far side beaming down on the seats.

Inside the bowels of the stands, nothing is open. Convenience stores and club shops are empty; there's no staff or stock anywhere. You can walk around but there's nothing to pick up or buy. Perhaps they will open (re-open?) in the future because look modern, but they're not in the best location. Most of the toilets are locked and low-hanging security tape crosses the concourse for a reason I never worked out.

One of the empty store fronts inside the original stand. I don't know if this is closed, occasionally open or about to open. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Outside the walls, locals walk, jog, or run around the stadium. The glass doors to the outside world are locked and in some places, chairs are piled up. Everything is covered in dust and looks like it hasn't been moved in years. The city lights shine beyond the open concrete walls to the right. Meanwhile, the floodlights leave shadows through the exits on the left.

As you keep walking around to the north, a display documenting the history of the club unexpectedly appears. Like the stores above, this should be moved to the main entrance for all spectators to see. I wouldn't be surprised if very few people are even aware of its existence. As I stood next to it, reading what I could and taking photographs, I never encountered another person.

History of Bucheon FC 1995. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
More low-hanging security tape. More piled-up chairs. Then you reach the main stand, on the western side. There is no temporary seating here. Nor is there much of an atmosphere but you can have an entire row, or even block, to yourself. Camera down, time to watch some football.

Bring your camera

Despite everything, I loved watching a game here. I found the contrast between Bucheon's slick red-and-back jersey combination against the backdrop of a stadium aging quickly quite fascinating. I hate writing negatively about a club or a stadium. To the people of Bucheon and the fans that day, not to mention the players past and present, this is home. This is their stadium. 

The lone cameraman in the East Stand. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
I don't know if I'll be back again this season. But I will return if they finally return this stadium to the summit of Korean football. There are familiar faces from their previous adventures in K League 1. Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i won the championship, beating Incheon United in the final. Pohang Steelers, FC Seoul, Daejeon Citizen, Daegu FC, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were part of the supporting cast. 

With summer approaching and the home team in the hunt for a promotion spot, this is a great time to visit Bucheon Stadium. Bring a camera, arrive early, and take a wander around a stadium with plenty of character. 

At the time of writing, Bucheon FC 1995 is 3rd in K League 2, four points off surprise leaders Gimpo FC in first. Their most recent result was a huge win on the road against Busan I-Park. 


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