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Counting down to Opening Weekend!

Two weeks after the K League released the fixtures for the top two divisions in Korean football, Futbology finally updated their app by adding all the games through to November 2024. Football fans can now plan their ideal weekends but at the time of writing, the app still showed Suwon Samsung Bluewings in K League 1. The final nail in their traumatic and bitter relegation has yet to be hammered into the coffin. For now.

33 days.

It is late January and the current temperature, where I'm living at least, is negative 10 degrees. The forecast looks equally bleak tomorrow, and it won't be until the first week of February when the high and low will be above 0. The 2024 season schedule for both K Leagues 1 and 2 might be out, but the return of the football season feels a long way off. The fixture dump did, at the very least, provide some momentary distraction from the grimness of January in Seoul.

The thought of watching a second-division match from behind a running track in an exposed civic stadium sounds really appealing tonight. Chicken on a stick, thirty thousand empty seats, no first-half goals, and a local rendition of Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It. Heaven.

How was last season for you? Suwon Bluewings' incredible demise rescued a season that was in danger of becoming dull. Gwangju's unlikely march to 3rd was the great underdog story of many a year, and Incheon United confidentially ventured to foreign fields for the first time. But with Ulsan so utterly dominant (finishing 12 points clear of Pohang in second) and some traditional heavyweights struggling for form and consistency, the league badly needed the drama at the foot of the table.

We're still a few weeks away from making predictions, but some of the clubs chasing the rebranded Ulsan HD have had a good winter. It is, therefore, unlikely there will be a procession to the title. By the time the league splits in autumn, it is entirely possible we could be witnessing a two or three horse-race for the championship. That alone should stir the senses on this cold and bleak afternoon.

Daegu FC v FC Seoul from the away end, February 2022. Opening Weekend of the season. It was bitterly cold on a day when Seoul won 2-0. (Image: All images instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)
Can this year's relegation battle live up to the heights of last year? Suwon FC, Jeju United, Gangwon FC, and Gimcheon Sangmu will likely make up the bottom four spots meaning a former champion, in Korea and abroad, should be fine for another season. K League 2, for the first time, features three clubs that have conquered Asia. That league rarely disappoints and this season will be no different.

Busan IPark are probably still wondering, like the rest of us, how they are not a K League 1 club right now. And if last season was tough, this year is going to be war. By my count, nine clubs have a realistic shot at promotion. Whoever tops K League 2 and earns automatic promotion will probably be the most heralded promoted club in years.

It will soon be time to create new opening day memories. Last year, I stood with the 3,000 Incheon United fans in Sangam. It was my first experience in the away end of Seoul's World Cup Stadium and whilst the result didn't go the way of Incheon, they would go on to enjoy are markedly more interesting season than their Gyeongin Derby rivals. The previous year, it was a weekend doubleheader for Daegu FC's loss against FC Seoul followed by Ulsan's dour 0-0 draw with Gimcheon.

24 hours later, Munsu Football Stadium hosts Ulsan Hyundai and Gimcheon Sangmu FC. 
The way that latter match panned out, I never would have guessed Ulsan would end up winning back-to-back titles, and Gimcheon would drop down to the second division. And that, of course, is the beauty of the new season. Wild predictions based on one round, teams and players written off immediately, confidence unreasonably high elsewhere. The first weekend of fixtures is one of the most exciting days of the year.

The new season will begin on Friday, March 1st, with two games each in both divisions. Because it is a holiday, three matches will start at 2pm; a rarity for a Friday. We don't often say it, but the organizers have gotten this right. Three matches starting at the warmest part of the day combined with some high-quality fixtures should guarantee a bumper crowd at all four stadiums. 

As is tradition, the League and FA Cup winners meet in the curtain-raiser. This is a great way to begin the new year although this fixture is arguably more enjoyable at the Pohang Steel Yard, a proper old-school football ground buried deep inside industrial Korea. In 2023, Pohang welcomed Ulsan with anti-racism messages from the ultras section adding an extra layer of spice to an already frenzied occasion. The Donghae-an rivals will meet in Pohang on June 30th. 

Immediately following the full-time whistle in Munsu, attention will shift to Jeonju where title-challenging Jeonbuk Motors host Daejeon Hana Citizen, the club that made the loudest winter splash thus far. Meanwhile, in K League 2, Ansan Greeners and Gyeongnam FC meet in Wa~ Stadium at the same time as south Gyeonggi-do rivals, FC Anyang and Seongnam FC, clash a few stops up Line 4. 

Gwangju FC welcome FC Seoul to the City of Light, the highlight of Saturday's action, before eyes shift to K League 2 on Sunday. Suwon Samsung Bluewings versus Chungnam Asan is, according to Paul Neat, the "most K League 2" of openers for the former champions. Asiad will then host Busan IPark and Seoul E-land that afternoon. An early promotion battle in Busan?

Did Chungnam Asan FC ever imagine a trip to Big Bird for a league game?
Here are the Opening Weekend fixtures in full;

Friday, March 1.
Ulsan HD v Pohang Steelers, Munsu Football Stadium. 14:00. K League 1.
Ansan Greeners v Gyeongnam FC, Wa~ Stadium. 14:00. K League 2.
FC Anyang v Seongnam FC, Anyang Stadium. 14:00. K League 2.
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors v Daejeon Hana Citizen, Jeonju World Cup Stadium. 16:30. K League 1.

Saturday, March 2.
Gwangju v FC Seoul, Gwangju Football Stadium. 14:00. K League 1.
Bucheon FC 1995 V Cheonan City FC, Bucheon Stadium. 14:00. K League 2.
Incheon United v Suwon FC, Incheon Football Stadium. 16:30. K League 1.
Gangwon FC v Jeju United, Chuncheon Songam. 16:30. K League 1.
Chungbuk Cheongju v Jeonnam Dragons, Cheongju Stadium. 16:30. K League 2.

Sunday, March 3.
Daegu FC v Gimcheon Sangmu, DGB Daegu Bank Park. 14:00. K League 1.
Suwon Samsung Bluewings v Chungnam Asan FC, Suwon World Cup Stadium. 14:00. K League 2.
Busan IPark v Seoul E-Land, Asiad Stadium.16:30. K League 2.

Having defended the relegation/promotion structure on the KLU Christmas Special, the drawbacks of only one guaranteed relegation were made really clear when the fixtures were announced. The lack of movement has created a strong sense of familiarity with the matches. Surely, in that case, it would have made more sense for Gimcheon Sangmu to have a home game up first?

Nevertheless, hardcore fans and groundhoppers can now plan their season ahead. When is the first derby for your club? How many doubleheader opportunities can you eke out? Can you afford a weekend plane ticket to Jeju? Where will the drama likely come from?

Protests or champagne in Jeonju this season? Find out soon. Jeonbuk Motors open with Daejeon Hana Citizen on Friday, March 1.

As for me, the Korean football nomad with no club of my own, I hope to see FC Anyang versus Seongnam and Suwon Bluewings versus Chungnam Asan FC. Celebrate the passing of winter and the return of football by getting down to your local stadium in March. If you can swing a doubleheader, even better!

Just 33 more days!

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