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A Brief History of the Now Official Bucheon vs Jeju Rivalry

A Brief History of the Now Official Bucheon vs Jeju Rivalry

Among the many subplots and interesting match-ups that this season's K League 2 has to offer, the individual fixture that has the most talking points is Bucheon FC 1995 vs Jeju United. While a rivalry between these two clubs may seem unusual to the uninitiated, a look at the history of these teams will be enough to make all K-League fans mark these matches into their calendars.

Bucheon and Jeju

A quick glance at a map of South Korea and anyone can easily see that these two teams are as far apart as any two clubs in the country. Indeed, these two parts of the country could not be more different. Jeju is a former independent island kingdom that has retained large amounts of its unique culture and way of speaking, despite being a part of Korea for hundreds of years now. Bucheon was created in 1914 after outer areas of Bupyeong County and Incheon City were joined to create a new town, with the name Bucheon being a combination of the two (the rest of Bupyeong was later incorporated into Incheon).

Jeju is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Korea and is well-known for its beaches, climate, countryside, food, and Hallasan, the highest mountain in South Korea. Bucheon is the second most densely populated city in the country, sandwiched between the much larger cities of Seoul and Incheon, and promotes itself as the cultural centre of the capital area. Indeed, it has its own philharmonic orchestra, film festival (BiFan), and international Bboy dance competition, and the city is a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

The Origin as a Seoul Club

Despite these differences, these two locations will forever be connected (and divided) by football. Originally, there was only one club, which was known as the Yukong Elephants. They first played in the K League's inaugural season in 1983, where they finished third out of five teams, and they played across the capital area. The Yukong Elephants would go on to become a successful side, becoming runners-up the following year and in 1994, and being crowned champions in 1989. They also won the now-defunct League Cup in 1994 and 1996. 

At the end of 1995, the K League introduced a decentralisation policy that forced three Seoul-based clubs to leave the city in order to spread the popularity of the sport across the country: Yukong Elephants; LG Cheetahs (who first moved to Anyang and then returned to the capital as FC Seoul); Ilhwa Chunma (who are now Seongnam FC after originally moving to Cheonan). All three clubs shared the Dongdaemun Stadium in north Seoul at that time, and initially refused relocation. After negotiations, it was eventually agreed that the three clubs would leave the city and the Yukong Elephants moved to Bucheon (for a more in-depth analysis of this part of K League history, it is strongly recommended to read Ryan Walters article about the relocations and the Seoul vs Anyang rivalry).

Leaving the Capital

The Yukong Elephants officially re-branded themselves as Bucheon SK in 1997 (after spending one season as Bucheon Yukong), but they did not actually move to Bucheon until the start of the 2001 season. This was because their 35,000 capacity stadium in Bucheon was under construction, so Bucheon SK used the Mokdong Stadium in west Seoul between 1996 and 2000. Bucheon SK continued to perform successfully, winning a 'supplementary' League Cup in 2000 (different from their original two League Cup trophies, as South Korea had two League Cup competitions from 1997-2000), and finishing as runners-up once each in the K-League (2000) and FA Cup (2004).

Despite all this change and evolution, there had only been one continuous club through all of this. However, 2006 would be the year that everything changed. Without any prior warning to the fans the owners of Bucheon SK, SK Energy, announced that the club would move to the island of Jeju and re-brand itself as Jeju United. The island had no professional sports teams despite having a sizeable population (currently around 600,000), and the 35,000 capacity Jeju World Cup Stadium had been sitting idle since the end of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The move made sense to the owners from a marketing standpoint, but to Bucheon fans that were suddenly left without a team, there was nothing but anger, confusion and heartbreak.

Since the Split

The former SK fans immediately started a movement to establish a new club in their city to play in the Bucheon Stadium, with the original goal being to start playing in time for the 2007 Korea National League (the then second-tier) season. Due to difficulties in gathering finances the club, which was to be named Bucheon FC 1995, was officially founded on 1st December 2007 as a local government-owned club, and began playing in the inaugural K3 League season in 2008. This league was officially an amateur/semi-professional league consisting of 16 clubs and Bucheon FC 1995 had a tough start to life, finishing 13th at the end of their first season. The following year would see a dramatic improvement and they would finish fourth, which would prove to be their highest ever placing at this level as mid-table positions would be standard over the next three years. While their performances did not set the league alight, Bucheon were able to strengthen their finances to the point where they could turn professional. After this, they were approved to join the K League Challenge (now the K League 2) on the 5th December 2012, just in time to partake in the league's debut season in 2013. To this day, Bucheon FC 1995 remain the only former K3 League club to have stepped up to the second division.

This level is where Bucheon have remained, though they have reached the promotion play-offs on two occasions. In 2016 they achieved their highest ever finish of third, though they would be knocked out by fourth place (and eventual promoted side) Gangwon at the first hurdle. That same year Bucheon also achieved their best ever finish in the FA Cup, where they reached the semi-finals. The second time they reached the K League 2 promotion play-offs was last year, when a five-match winning streak in the final five games saw them pip Ansan Greeners by one point to clinch the final play-off spot. Again they would be knocked out in their first match due to a 1-1 draw with FC Anyang (in this format the lower-ranked side must win while a draw is enough for the higher-ranked side to go through). Lack of promotion has been the reason that Bucheon has not yet met Jeju United, though promotion failing in 2019 meant that they will now play each other in 2020 due to Jeju's relegation.

Ever since its foundation nearly 40 years, the club that now calls itself Jeju United had never experienced relegation until the 2019 season. This came as a shock to most followers of Korean football as Jeju had performed consistently well for many years prior to this, not finishing in the bottom half of the table since 2013. Jeju have reached the FA Cup semi-finals four times (2007, 2010, 2012, and 2013) and finished as runners-up in the K League twice (2010 and 2017). For a club that has competed in the AFC Champions on three occasions (2011, 2017, 2018) and had never finished lower than ninth ever since relegation was introduced in 2012, finishing 2019 as the league's bottom side was somebody that nobody would have predicted at the beginning of the season.

The Current State of the Clubs

[READ2020 Season Preview: Jeju United]

After registering only five wins last season Jeju needed to invest in their squad, despite already possessing players that should be competing in the top half of K League 1. In order to cope with several departing key players, including captain Kwon Soon-hyung to Seongnam and striker Magno Cruz to Umm Salal of Qatar, Jeju have made some big moves this winter. Strengthening their defence is 30 year-old Cypriot international Valentinos Sielis from Gangwon, while up front 29 year-old Joo Min-kyu from Ulsan Hyundai will be looking to terrorise the K League 2 defences. One of the most controversial moves this transfer window is the signing of 26 year-old defender Lim Dong-hyuk from Bucheon. Lim had spent his entire professional career at Bucheon up to this point, and for consecutive seasons he was nominated in the Best Defender category for the K League 2 Best Eleven. As the two clubs have never faced each other before it is unclear as to how the Bucheon fans will behave towards Lim on match days (though of course this first match will be behind closed doors). If there is anything that is known to spice up rivalries, though, it is through events such as transfers between the clubs.

[READTransfer Profile: Lim Dong-hyuk]

If Jeju had faced Bucheon in a previous season, such as in the FA Cup, then they would have met an almost completely different side to the one that will be lining up in 2020. The turnover of players at Bucheon has always been quite high, but this previous transfer window has given them a completely new look. Bucheon have been hit particularly hard by departures, losing last year's captain, vice-captain, first choice goalkeeper, top three goalscorers and all Player of the Year nominees. They have been forced to build a completely new defence and attack, with the most interesting signings being Brazilian forwards William Barbio and Jefferson Baiano, and 2014 Asian Games Gold Medal winning full-back Kwak Hae-sung. The clubs contrasting success in the transfer window and historical league performances hint at Jeju United being the favourites in the matches this season. However, there is a mystery as to how well the new signings will perform at these teams. Also, it is impossible to predict which players well step up in a rivalry and who will crumble under the pressure. This will give Bucheon fans hope that their team will make them proud, showing the world that clubs that are created by the community and for the community can compete against clubs that are corporate-owned.

[READ: 2020 Season Preview: Bucheon FC 1995]

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