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Is Incheon Football Stadium the best in Korea?

Incheon United will welcome AFC Champions League football to their beautiful stadium in late August when the next edition of the tournament gets underway at the play-off round. This is a stadium that merits inclusion on the biggest continental stage but are we right to call it Korea's best?

This country is not short of world-class, fabulous, and celebrated stadiums. There were 10 new stadiums built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup so it could be justifiably argued one of those is the country's best. If a stadium meets FIFA's requirements to host World Cup games, it must be special.

And in this category, we have several contenders. Seoul World Cup Stadium is Korea Republic's nominal home ground and currently the biggest in use. Suwon's colorful Big Bird is more aesthetically pleasing with the vast, masterful roof; Jeongju looks like a castle, and the slightly downsized Jeju World Cup Stadium has unrivaled views over the walls. Is there a stadium in Korea with a façade as interesting as Busan's?

Of the football-specific stadiums, Pohang's iconic Steelyard predates all others in the top flight and Daegu's glorious downtown arena is dripping with class. Drop a division and Gyeongnam FC's home ground in Changwon is a delightful place to watch football, especially in summer. 

However, taking everything into consideration, there is surely no better stadium in this country than Incheon Football Stadium. Undoubtedly, there are reasons made for and against every stadium but as a neutral to the Korean game, I'm going to explain why I think this is the best stadium.

Stadium capacity

With a capacity of 20,891, Incheon United is unlikely to sell out their home ground too often but it is a good number in this era of K League football. As we transition towards a post-Covid world and hopefully a swell in interest in domestic football, it wouldn't take much more than a very competitive Incheon United team to see their stadium filling up on most match days. It compares favorably to the surge of outstanding football grounds emerging every year in the US.

20 years ago this fledgling club was playing at the city's World Cup Stadium in Munhak, a 49,000-capacity structure with a running track. Even if Incheon is only attracting 8,500 fans on average, that obviously looks much better in a smaller stadium.

Location, location, location

One thing I noticed when scripting the Futbology Match of the Round segments for the K League United podcasts is how many stadiums are slightly awkward to reach. Without a train line close by, stadiums tend to be built in the suburbs, surrounded by vast parking spaces. Roads approaching, say, Ulsan and Jeonju, are blocked as the majority of fans have little option but to drive or take a bus.

Dowon Station, on Seoul's never-ending Dark Blue Line #1, is so close it might as well have an entrance in the West Stand. Fans typically exit at doors 1 or 2, cross the road and enter the plaza behind the North Stand. There are convenience stores, restaurants, and cafes on the left, and ticket offices on the right. As you walk towards the stadium gates, six food trucks selling hot dogs, skewers, churros, chicken, and coffee awaits.

What are you having? I always go for the chicken skewers. (All images in this article from instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Dowon is two stops from the terminus for that line, Incheon Station, which doubles as a transfer station for the Suin Bundang Line. Across the road from Incheon Station is Chinatown. Dowon is not served by express (limited stop) trains, but Jemulpo, one station east towards Seoul, is. This cuts down the journey time dramatically from Guro Station.

Stand up if you hate running tracks

Incheon is not unique here. Currently, ten of the twelve K League 1 clubs play on track-less grounds, and in fairness to both Suwon FC and Gangwon FC, they have minimized the impact of the track somewhat by constructing temporary stands.... for home fans only. The proximity of the players to the fans at smaller grounds makes for a much more enjoyable spectacle.

It is always a nice feeling to look out over a stand and not see a running track.

The four stands 

Incheon's two main stands are double-tired with the West Stand (Main Stand) also comprising corporate boxes, VIP seats, and Premium sections. The East Stand is the quintessential grandstand opposite the main stand. It has table seats in both corners but overall less of the glamour. This is a good spot for supporters who want to sit for the whole 90 minutes, families, and people who want a full view of the pitch.

The management of the stadium also got creative with their names for various sections. In truth, these mean very little and can also be rather confusing, but this is the full list: Expert and Exciting in the East Stand. World class, With, and Wide View in the West Stand.

The jewel in the crown of Incheon Stadium is the eye-catching South Stand, where the more vocal elements of the home support watch games. The three blocks immediately behind the goals are for standing, but the rest is a large unbroken terrace sweeping up to the roof. It is decorated with blue and black seats (the colors of the home team) and even the tarping covering the four exits makes up the words 파 랑 검 은 (Blue Black).

I have a feeling most K League supporters would love a stand like that in their stadium.
Away supporters can probably feel aggrieved that they are housed in the only unprotected stand to the North. Rain, snow, and exhausting summer sun rays are the obvious concerns. On the flip side, away fans are next to the food trucks and much closer to the subway station if they want or need a quick post-match exit.

The miracle of the concession stores

One notable feature of this stadium, especially in the East Stand, is the position of the two convenience stores on either side of the Heineken Bar. All three establishments are at the back of the lower tier, but not in the bowels of the stadium. They are, essentially, situated behind the wheelchair section with a full view of the pitch. Buying a round of beer, water or snacks won't mean potentially missing out on a goal.

Admittedly I took this photo to show the pink skies behind the away fans. The Heineken Bar is just about visible on the right. Notice also the big screen, which I'll get to later.
In the West Stand, there is a store near the southwest corner entrance. This store also comes with picnic tables that are available for anyone to use. Again, fans can purchase a beer and sit at a picnic table and not miss any of the action. This is a major positive point for Incheon. How often can you remember queuing for snacks and then leaving your spot in line because of the roar of the crowd? 

The atmosphere

The home section is no louder than what you can experience elsewhere in the country but crucially, the short distance between both sets of supporters, and the proximity they enjoy to the pitch greatly enhances the atmosphere at this stadium. From the East Stand, neutrals will get full value for their ticket. The home and away fans will be loud for a full 90 minutes and the players are almost within touching distance.

Tickets for the East Stand start from as little as 12,000.

It isn't all good news

Incheon United's website lists Heineken as an official sponsor, so that explains the exclusive rights to selling the Dutch beer at the ground. Heineken isn't terrible but like the food trucks outside, more variety is better. It would be amazing if the club and stadium were able to strike a deal with local breweries allowing them to set up a tent inside or outside the stadium. 

'Experience our sublime stadium with locally brewed beer' would be much cooler than only having Heineken to drink. Another minor quibble with the stadium is the big screen. From the upper East Stand, there is no view of the screen and if you're pitch side, major neck-turning is needed.

Final take

How disappointing, then, that Incheon United's August friendly with Italian club AS Roma will be played at the 2014 Asiad Games Main Stadium. If the organizers had hoped to showcase Korean football to a global (or, at least, Italian audience) what better place than a football-specific stadium in the heart of the city.

There is nothing wrong with the Asiad stadium, but it isn't a football stadium. It was built to host athletics and football, so it has an extremely unappealing running track. How do the Incheon United supporters feel? Instead of welcoming the beaten Europa Cup finalists to their home, they must support their team at another venue in the city; one which has no connection to their club.

If Jose Mourinho is still AS Roma's manager in August, I believe he'd rather watch his team play here.
And for what? An extra 10,000 seats? Football isn't a minority sport in Korea, and Roma, despite continental success in recent seasons, is not Real Madrid. There's no reason to assume fixtures like this will develop the game in this country. It doesn't need more promotion. This August friendly should have taken place at Incheon Football Stadium.

Pohang Steelyard is legendary. From waiting for the cargo trains to rumble into a POSCO plant to finding a stadium hidden in a small forest, to climbing the extremely steep steps in the upper tier. It, too, has characteristics not found anywhere else. But if Korea is going to continue building football-specific grounds into the future, the blueprints are ready. Just go to Down Station and find out for yourself.


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