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Gwangju has a team but now they need a proper home

K League 1 has reached the mid-point of the season and promoted Gwangju FC sits in fifth, pulling clear of the final relegation-promotion play-off spot. The club has a team capable of competing on the field, but future progress could be hampered until there's a permanent ground they call home.

Shortly after 7 pm local time, referee Ko Hyong-jin blew his whistle to start the football match and Dan Petescu's K League 1 adventure. The setting was the humdrum Gwangju Football Stadium; a ramshackle arena in the southwest consisting of temporary structures, an empty stand, foldable seats, and 5,000 fanatics sensing an upset. 

Gwangju Football Stadium is a makeshift home built on existing running tracks, immediately behind the south stand of the neighboring World Cup Stadium. There's one slightly elevated permanent stand and four smaller, rectangular, and uncovered stands with bright yellow seats on all sides. These stands are unconnected, so the gaps in between are filled by steel railings, ambulances, or blue recycling bins.

The temporary West Stand is in front of the stadium's only permanent structure. There's no more yellow tarping to hide the hundreds of poles used to erect this stand (image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea).
Petescu took his new team down the Honam Expressway boasting a raft of K League champions, local heroes, and international quality players. At half-time, he was able to call upon more heavy artillery to retrieve a difficult situation. According to Transfermarkt, Jeonbuk Motors' deeper and stronger squad is double the value of Gwangju's. It isn't David versus Goliath but the gap is significant nonetheless.

When Ko brought the game to a close two hours later, Petescu's battered team had been well and truly beaten. 

Welcome to Korean football, Dan.

And how the locals loved every minute of it. Petescu's Jeonbuk side was serenaded off the park with a rendition of 남행열차, Kim Soo-hee's classic about a passenger on the Honam Line yearning for a former lover, popularized across town by fans of Gwangju's baseball club.

The game began under one of those distinctive sky-blue Korean summer skies, and throughout the first half, the color changed to pink, orange, and finally pitch black. The shifting colors probably matched the new manager's mood as his team struggled to cope with the speed and break of the fired-up hosts.

The sun sets on a beautiful day in Gwangju. The VIP seats, media section, and TV gantry are all located on the single permanent structure (image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea).
The only blight on an outstanding evening, with a winning performance masterfully constructed by the coaching staff and perfectly executed by the players, was the stadium. This ground is not fit for purpose, even if it is a temporary home. 

As his side cracked under the relentless yellow wave, I wonder if Petescu spotted the enormous arched roofs of the stadium next door and wondered why his team wasn't taking a beating over there. Most striking off all was the abandoned south terrace, where two dozen seats remained folded from the last set of supporters to venture into a stand now considered a safety risk.

Not long before the opening goal, a Gwangju attack resulted in the ball being fired over the bar and into the empty stand. A ball boy ran to retrieve the ball, but he was stopped by a security guard. After around five minutes of meetings, consultations, and walkie-talkie dialogue, someone was summoned to collect the missing ball. Thankfully, that was the only time a match ball ended up in the stand.

The empty South Stand would ordinarily have a good view of the World Cup Stadium but it is currently closed(Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea).
Gwangju FC was founded in 2010 and immediately occupied the World Cup Stadium left empty following Gwangju Sangmu FC's relocation to Sangju. The stadium was named in Guus Hiddink's honor when his team defeated Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals of the 2002 Word Cup. Oddly, the national team never returned and when junior FIFA tournaments were staged in Korea, Gwangju's name was excluded from the list of host cities.

Unsurprisingly, the multi-purpose stadium proved far too big for the new football club. With a capacity of over 40,000, home games were characterized by vast swathes of empty blue seats beyond the atmosphere-sucking running track. A solution was needed so it was decided to convert the secondary (or, auxiliary) ground next door into a stadium capable of hosting K League 1 games.

July marks the 3rd anniversary since the club moved in and they're likely to celebrate that occasion with the continued closure of the South Stand. The knock-on effect, apart from a smaller capacity potentially hurting revenue, is the visiting fans have been relocated to the East Stand and now enjoy some of the best views of a pitch that any fans in Korea get.

Half-way line entrance for the East Stand. Home fans are to the right, and away fans are to the left (image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea).
So, how did the club end up in this position? Gwangju's curious relationship with professional football might have played a part. The decision to locate the army team, initially known as Gwangju Sangmu Bulsajo, in Gwangju, was indecent, at best. Sangmu joined K League 1 in time for the 2003 season, finishing in 10th spot with 46 points from 44 games. The World Cup Stadium, Sangmu's former home, is less than 4 km from Gwangju's May 18th Memorial Park.

Here, the names of the students, protestors, and civilians killed in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising by the South Korean military are engraved on the marble walls. Fighting began on the morning of May 18th outside Chonnam National University when students protested against nationwide martial law. Street battles then took place downtown before the army retreated awaiting reinforcements. It was all over on May 27th.

May 18th Memorial Park (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea).
Accounts differ on the number of fatalities, with estimates ranging from 165 to several thousand. What isn't debated is the significant role the Gwangju Uprising had in paving the way for Korea's transition into democracy. Initially choosing Gwangju as the venue for Sangmu could have hurt support for the game in the city, at a professional level, but that was a long time ago and the new club is an entirely separate entity.

There's another problem, too. Perhaps more so here than in any other Korean city, Gwangju is a baseball town. Running parallel with the train tracks approaching Gwangju Station is a road called Seorim-ro, a place where baseball fans go to worship the best talent produced in the school system. Seorim-ro continues west where it meets the larger Mudeung-ro outside the magnificent Gwangju KIA Champions Field, a 27,000-capacity ballpark that opened in 2014.

Hours before Gwangju FC hosted regional rivals Jeonbuk Motors, 15,000 people shuffled in for a run-of-the-mill KBO game. This stadium has some of the best facilities seen in the country, with a top-class class club store, endless food, and beer options, and, from the upper deck, astonishing views of Mudeung Mountain.

Spectators of both sports can clearly see the major disparity between both stadiums. A permanent home, without a track, akin to Daegu's DGB Bank Park, would be perfect for Gwangju FC.

Champions Field is like a palace compared to the football stadium (image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea).
It could be argued Petescu's managerial career in Korea has already made a stop at the league's least-desirable stadium. But that's of no comfort to Gwangju FC as they look primed to extend their stay in the top flight, hopefully for years to come. As Michael Redmond said on the recent KLU podcast, Gwangju is a beautiful city with plenty to offer (notably in history and food) for football fans and groundhoppers. 

They have a team that can compete; now, they need a proper football stadium.


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