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10 to 1. This neutral's most enjoyable experiences in 2023

My final year stats, as provided by Futbology, showed I went to 40 games in 2023 (39 in Korea). These 40 matches took place in 20 stadiums, 7 new, and included my first ever Korean women's international and my first game in the WK League. From title deciders to relegation humdingers, these were my most enjoyable experiences this season.

It wasn't all good news. Unfortunately, I could not visit all the remaining K League 2 grounds, so a Futbology 'Completed League' badge for the second tier will have to wait. Cheonan City FC and, rather disgracefully, Busan IPark and Jeonnam Dragons are the final destinations. Next season, I'd also like to come close to seeing every stadium in either K3 or K4.

My 2023 season opened in Sangam when FC Seoul hosted, and beat, Incheon United 2-1 on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon. It ended almost 10 months later in Suwon Stadium, the final game of this calendar year. As I'm sure you're all aware by now, Suwon FC pulled off a minor miracle to overturn a 3-1 aggregate deficit with only 12 minutes remaining, to win a wild game 5-2 (and 6-4 on aggregate). It was a good way to end.

These are the 10 most memorable matches I saw in 2023, as a neutral K League fan. They aren't necessarily the best games, just the most memorable. Not having a team to support has several downsides, such as missing out on debates/arguments with rival supporters. However, on the plus side, it means you're not restricted by a schedule and can simply support, on the day, whoever you like.

Number 10

Incheon United 2-1 Yokohama F. Marinos.
Incheon Football Stadium, November 28th, 2023.

The first of two AFC Champions League matches on this list, and both involving Incheon United. It was bitterly cold that night and the home fans had plenty of reason to be concerned. After a bright start to the group stages, Incheon lost back-to-back fixtures with Shandong Taishan. Added to that, a mounting injury list robbed Cho Sung-hwan of some of his better players. And with their domestic season concluding the following weekend, Incheon were tired.

Yokohama, J. League champions in 2022, were beaten by Incheon in match week 1. They needed a win here and set about controlling the game right from the start. Behind the goals, their fans danced, jumped, and sang for 90 minutes, some shirtless, despite the freezing temperatures. Hong Si-hoo, however, gave Incheon an early lead and they kept that to half-time.

Hernandez Rodrigues made it two midway through the second half, even though Incheon had about 30 percent of the ball. A late Yokohama goal ensured a nervy finish but Incheon held on, against all odds. Afterward, captain Oh Ban-suk told the press how proud he was of his young team. Yokohama manager Kevin Muscat singled out goalkeeper Kim Do-heon for special praise. Sadly for Incheon, despite collecting 12 points, they missed out on qualification for the next round.



Number 9

FC Seoul 0-1 Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
Seoul World Cup Stadium, November 25th, 2023.

As a game of football, this was truly awful. Suwon were facing a first-ever relegation but that didn't deter their 8,000 fans who traveled north of the Han in fear. Weirdly they could not have found more accommodating rivals. Seoul never threatened the Suwon goal and seemed more interested in picking fights than playing football. They finished the game with 10 men and were probably fortunate to escape with just a 1-0 loss.

But, as an occasion, it was fantastic. I stood in the away end, not sure what to expect before kick-off. Would I join a desperate and frustrated fan base about to live their worst nightmare, or would this be the start of Suwon's great survival? In the end, it was neither, although Rodrigo Bassani's superb individual goal gave the Bluewings some hope of avoiding the drop.

After the game, the away fans and the band took their flags, banners, and musical instruments out the south gate. They went through their full repertoire of songs, relieved they hadn't suffered that maiden demotion at the hands of their biggest rivals. The relief would be short-lived but we were unaware of that at the time.



Number 8

Ulsan Hyundai 1-0 Jeonbuk Motors.
Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium, August 19th, 2023.

Conformation that Ulsan were going to be crowned K League 1 back-to-back champions came in Munsu during this brutally humid evening in August. It was dark, overcast, and generally miserable all afternoon. Humidity was 86% at kickoff. An open beer was flat and warm in a matter of minutes. But the home fans didn't care. Ulsan held on for a 1-0 win, and I witnessed another Jeonbuk loss.

30,756 people (Ulsan's biggest crowd of the season) were there to witness the game. Um Won-sang scored the only goal on 72 minutes, and the roar was deafening. At the final whistle, the home fans stayed in their section, serenading the players off the pitch. It was a scrappy, niggly clash, one that Jeonbuk were unfortunate to lose.

Jeonbuk would go into free fall over the next month, dropping down to 7th at one point before rallying to finish inside the top 6.


Number 7

FC Seoul 3-0 Daegu FC.
Seoul World Cup Stadium, April 8th, 2023.

On the face of it, there wasn't anything too exciting or memorable about this round 6 meeting. Seoul oozed class on the day, scoring three times in the first half to move up to 3rd in the table. I don't know if they were genuine title contenders, but over the next few months, they never dropped below 3rd, meaning they were, at the very least, credible AFC Champions League (in whatever rebrand!) challengers. 

The heavy loss - which included a first goal in red and black for Hwang Ui-jo - dropped Daegu down to 8th. It would get worse before it got better, but their season culminated in a top 6 finish. This game was memorable, however, for the huge crowd that showed up on the day, reminiscent of K League games a decade ago. The final figure of 45,007 was a season-high for FC Seoul and the league in general. They weren't all there for the football, though.

Korean idol/pop star Im Young-woong, also known as Hero Im, was presented to the crowd before the game and then he sang several songs on the pitch at half-time. For two hours, Sangam was a world where football supporters existed with idol fanatics, creating the strangest atmosphere I had seen all year. The large crowd was treated to a football exhibition in the first half and then rocked to its very foundations at the break.



Number 6

Jeonbuk Motors 1-2 Pohang Steelers.
Jeonju World Cup Stadium, April 1st, 2023.

On one of the nicest days of the year so far, Pohang Steelers arrived in Jeonju to find the locals in revolt. The reign of manager Kim Sang-sik was hanging by a thread, with flashcards distributed throughout before the game calling for his dismissal. Behind the goals, the home fans, in protest, chose to largely remain silent and refrain from cheering.

Jeonbuk scored early and took a deserved one-goal lead into the break. However, as soon as Pohang equalized, it was inevitable who'd score the winning goal. With 10 minutes remaining, we abandoned our seats high in the West Stand and made our way as close to the away support as we could. This was, after all, where the noise was emanating from. Our gamble was rewarded when Zeca planted a header right in front of us into the top right corner.

Pohang won 2-1 and not long after the final whistle went, videos began circling online of Jeonbuk fans blocking the departure of the team bus. They were now in full mutiny mode. Kim Sang-sik would limp on for a few more weeks before eventually quitting to bring his, and fans', misery to an end. 


Number 5

Gwangju FC 2-0 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
Gwangju Football Stadium, June 24th, 2023.

The final Jeonbuk entry. After Kim Sang-sik's dismissal, Jeonbuk Motors announced the signing of Romanian legend Dan Petescu as team manager. His first match was in Gwangju, at their ramshackle temporary arena in the shadows of the city's locked World Cup Stadium. Slightly isolated in the South Jeolla province, this is the closest thing Gwangju have for a derby game. And the atmosphere matched that!

This is no ordinary stadium, The south stand, where the away fans would normally sit, was closed owing to structural irregularities. When a wayward shot ended up buried among the folding yellow seats, staff pulled out their walkie-talkies to see who had to fetch the ball. A penny for Dan Petecu's thoughts during those moments? 

Because of the stand closure, the away fans were moved into the West Stand and took up fifty percent of the available sections. From here, they had a perfect view of Gwangju FC tearing their team apart. The three points, inspired by Lee Soon-min, propelled Gwangju from 8th to 5th. They would eventually finish 3rd. The match was also memorable for the collective adoration held by everyone for Jeonbuk's soon-to-be-departed Cho Gyu-sung. I can still hear the screeching.



Number 4

Incheon United 3-1 Hai Phong.
Incheon Football Stadium, August 22nd, 2023.

I've added this entry to number 4 on the list because it was such a joyous, pleasant experience. Incheon United, for many seasons battling relegation from K League 1, surprised everyone by finishing fourth in 2022, qualifying for the AFC Champions League play-off round. Whatever about the players on the pitch or the coaches in the dugouts, their stadium, also known as Sungui Arena, should be displayed to a continental audience.

This was a one-legged affair, and Incheon United had home advantage over Vietnamese outfit Hai Phong. Despite the lack of information Incheon had on their opponents, and the short preparation time as Hai Phong only advanced to this level the previous week, most people inside Sungui Arena expected Incheon to qualify without much fuss.

But Hai Phong took the lead and in general made life very awkward for Incheon. Cho Sung-hwan's side needed extra time but they progressed in the end, with the third and final goal coming from a beaming Gerso Fernandez, sprinting toward the Hai Phong goal without an opponent in sight. He was celebrating before he smashed the ball home. You could see how much it meant to them.



Number 3

Pohang Steelers 0-1 Ulsan Hyundai.
Pohang Steel Yard, July 8th, 2023.

Two weeks after Ulsn Hyundai, defending K League champions, were rocked by a racism storm, they traveled 77 km north to Pohang for the latest Donghae-an Derby. Pohang's fans made sure Ulsan didn't forget what had happened. Two large banners were revealed in the home end moments before kick-off (oddly, Hwang Hee-chan performed the ceremonial kick-off). These banners read:

WELCOME ULSAN FOOTBALL CLUB. SAY NO TO RACISM.

WELCOME ULSAN RACIST CLUB. SAY NO TO ULSAN.

They were in reference to racist comments made on an Instagram post published by Ulsan defender Lee Myung-jae. Remarking on Lee's apparently dark skin color in the photos, Lee Gyu-sung commented that his teammate looked like a Southeast Asian player, and Park Yong-woo called Lee "Sasalak", after Sasalak Haiprahkon, a Thai player who represented Jeonbuk Motors in 2021.

A sold-out Steel Yard witnessed a tight, cagey tussle which Ulsan eventually won. Joo Min-kyu scored the only goal but the best player on the field was, arguably, their goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo. The national team backup made a string of important saves to deliver the points for his side. In the opposite corner. Oberdan was outrageously good in midfield, unlucky to be on the losing side.



Number 2

Suwon FC 5-2 Busan IPark (aet).
Castle Park, December 9th, 2023.

Following Suwon FC's first-leg 2-1 defeat to Busan, I told Matthew Binns on the KLU podcast that I hoped Suwon would drop down. This was for three reasons; a Suwon derby in K League 2 would be immense, it would basically turn the second division into one big derby (with 10 of 13 teams located near a Seoul metro line), and their stadium isn't worth visiting (apart from the floodlights).

But on a mild December afternoon, Suwon FC defied the odds and performed a miracle at Castle Park. Trailing 3-1 on aggregate with 12 minutes to play, Kim Do-kyun's attack first policy finally paid off. Suwon scored twice in quick succession to take the game to extra time. And their superior bench continued to make the difference, with a rout on the cards, Suwon settled for just three more goals.

It was an astonishing comeback by a side that hadn't won a home game since early May (or anywhere in over 2 months). With every goal, the bench emptied and people were sprinting onto the pitch from all directions. Lee Seung-woo, Suwon's suspended talisman, was out of control in the premium seats. For Lachlan Jackson, it was the best day of his career. Kim Do-kyun has since departed Suwon, but what a way to bow out. And, to my opening point, the K League is better off with Suwon FC than their illustrious neighbors down the road.



Number 1

Suwon Samsung Bluewings 0-0 Gangwon FC.
Suwon World Cup Stadium, December 2nd, 2023.

The worst game of football on the list. Suwon managed three shots on target in 90 minutes and controlled the ball for only 40% of the entire match. Gangwon were a little better and threatened a few times, but they were, at best, extremely mediocre. How does a 0-0 in which nothing happened end up top of the list?

Well, as was extensively discussed on the KLU pod, this game confirmed Suwon Bluewings' relegation to K League 2. In the previous two rounds, the Bluewings went 3 km up the road to Suwon Stadium, lost a man early, but went on to win. Then, with automatic demotion a possibility, the Bluewings stormed Sangam to claim all three points. But on this day, in front of almost 30,000, they failed to fire and their uninterrupted stay in K League 1 was brought to a meek end.

The final whistle was an eerie experience. As the Gangwan players celebrated in front of their fans (who in turn chanted "Suwon Relegation") the Bluewings did nothing. They stood in the center circle for what seemed like an eternity. Very few fans left; in fact, most of those in the East Stand just stayed, sitting, in disbelief. Behind the goals on the North side, anger was boiling over. The players were roundly booed, but the loudest howls were reserved for the club's ownership. Only Yeom Ki-hun was spared.




FNR

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