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Open training session unlocks Coupang Play Series

It doesn't provoke the senses quite like Christmas, but it is the night before the start of the Coupang Play Series and there was plenty of excitement inside Seoul World Cup Stadium as Atletico Madrid and Team K League entertained in an open training session. 


Welcome to Seoul, Atlético Madrid, the latest opponent to take on Team K League. Even though they lack the prestige and trophy cabinet of their rivals across town, Aleti is a huge draw. The first game of the 2023 Coupang Play Series sold out instantly and Korean fans, in Atlético jerseys, were waiting outside the World Cup Stadium hours before the open training session.

Their summer squad features 3 World Cup winners - Antoine Griezmann and Thomas Lemar (2018) and Rodrigo de Paul (2022) - not to mention two of the most expensive football players of all time, Griezmann and Joao Felix. Belgian stalwarts Yannick Carrasco and Axel Witzel have close to 200 international caps between them, and then there's club legend, Koke.

Koke formed part of Atlético's pre-match press conference alongside manager Diego Simeone. The visitors were due to appear first, but we were told they were delayed 15 minutes after the expected start time. Photos on Twitter showed the Atleti players training all day in Seongnam, on the complete opposite side of the city from Sangam. Early evening traffic is, indeed, a nightmare.

Not to worry. Team K League manager Hong Myung-bo, Ulsan Hyundai's experienced defender Kim Young-gwon, and Daegu FC playmaker Cesinha were delighted to fill the void. Hong was asked about coaching Cesinha, a rival at club level. His response brought laughs from the audience and an amusing glance toward the Brazilian from Ulsan's manager.

Hong Myung-bo (centre) is flanked by Daegu FC's Cesinha (left) and Ulsan Hyundai centre-back Kim Young-gwan (right).
Once the obligatory scarf-holding photographs were taken, Team K League departed, and in stepped Simeone and Koke. The moderately attended presser was suddenly packed to the rafters. Spanish journalists and photographers stormed in, occupying whatever inch of space they could find.

Simeone really is a captivating character. His 'best of' compilation videos on Youtube are always worth viewing, from wild celebrations to heated exchanges with match officials and sprinting off the pitch to avoid missiles hurled by irate opposition fans. He smiled throughout but it would be interesting to know what he makes of the grueling schedule that takes his team to Korea, Mexico, and San Francisco.

Diego Simeone (left) with Atletico Madrid captain Koke.
Once the press conferences were over, it was time for the main event: The opening training session. Sadly for the fans who'd waited for hours outside, the early afternoon sunshine made way for violent rainstorms typical in a Korean July.

The session's highlight was undoubtedly the 9-on-8, red vests versus blue vests in the middle of the pitch. The opening salvo was a farce as excess surface water trapped the ball, making long passes die well before the intended target. By the end, the halfway line looked like a mudbath. 

The exhibition game was a major hit among the fans.
Despite the conditions, the local supporters enjoyed seeing the likes of Griezmann, Memphis Depay, Koke and Jan Oblak put on a football exhibition. Shortly before 8pm, the Atlético players departed to warm applause. There was even time for Simeone to hoof balls into the crowd; some of which failed to cross the advertisement hoardings.

Team K League get their preparations underway.
Team K League emerged after 8. The rain had passed so those still in the East and West Stands were able to change from their Atlético Madrid jersey to their favorite K League shirt. This brought color to the stadium as Daegu's sly blue, Jeonbuk Motors' green, and the red and black of FC Seoul, among others, was on display.

There was even time for an 11-on-11 half-pitch game before the supporters left for the night. The stage has been set. Roll on the actual football.

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