It’s now roughly halfway through the season, and you can catch my mid-season review here.
Despite losses to Seoul and Jeju United, both by a two-one scoreline, Jeonbuk finished July sitting comfortably at the top of the league. Below them, and on cracking form, are Suwon Bluewings, who had a series of big wins in July, stuffing Jeonnam four-one, and beating Incheon and Sangju by three goals to nil. Their great form has mainly been down to a goalscoring streak by Brazilian forward Johnathan, who hit the back of the net nine times in July to cement his place at the top of the goalscorer charts. The only side it seems the Bluewings can’t beat is Ulsan, who defeated Suwon two-one at the start of the month, and then drew with them at the beginning of August. Ulsan keep hammering out wins, but when it came to their big chance to close the gap on Jeonbuk, they completely blew it, losing four-nil to the league leaders. Seoul and Jeju both hit good form in July after blips earlier on in the season. Jeju got a big win over Jeonbuk, but lost to both Seoul and Suwon. Gangwon started July with a couple of wins, but since then their form has tanked, and they’ve slid all the way down to sixth in the league. Down at the bottom of the table, Incheon started the month with a big win over Gwangju, but July’s fixture list has been unkind to them, and three draws have been interspersed with defeats to Seoul, Suwon, and at the start of August Jeonbuk. They might be bottom but they’re level on points with Gwangju, with Daegu and Sangju Sangmu also right in the relegation mix.
It’s now roughly halfway through the season, and you can catch my mid-season review here.
The international break meant that there were no K-league fixtures in the first half of June, and Jeonbuk Motors made the most of that rest period, winning three and drawing one of their games this month to cement themselves at the top of the K-league table. They have been hitting the target regularly, scoring at least two goals in every game this month, their most impressive outing being the 4-1 win over Gangwon. Brazilian striker Edu has surprised many by grabbing five goals this month, bringing his season total to six. Key player is Kim Bo-kyung moving back to Japan, and with Lee Jae-sung possibly following him out the exit door, Jeonbuk will need to sign some replacements if they want to continue their title charge.
Ulsan and Jeju are second and third respectively. Suwon lost their derby match with Seoul, but seven points from their other three games puts them in contention for those Champions’ League places. Pohang’s early season form seems to be losing steam, with the Steelers losing three out of their four games this month.
Despite their derby win over Suwon, Seoul’s form has been appalling this month, with two draws and a home defeat to Sangju. Last season’s champions are now stuck down in seventh, well adrift of the leading pack. A win over high-flying Ulsan, and draw against Jeju helped Incheon lift catch up with their rivals at the bottom of the table; they are now level on points with Gwangju.
This month, most of the attention has been on the Under-20 World Cup that took place around Korea. The competition led to disruption for several K-League sides, including Jeju United, who had to play a Champions’ League knockout game at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in order to accommodate the U-20 tournament. The inconvenience of the tournament didn’t seem to affect Jeju’s form though; the islanders started the month with an impressive 4-0 win away to Jeonbuk, with goals from their foreign trio of Mendy, Cruz, and Toscano. The win cemented Jeju’s position as genuine title challengers, and they followed that result up with a 4-1 victory over Sangju Sangju. They’ve only dropped points in one match so far this month, a two-one defeat to Pohang, and if not for the postponement of their match against Gwangju, Jeju could’ve ended May at the top of the league. Jeonbuk still hold that top spot, and are undefeated in the four games they played since their battering by Jeju, with two wins and two draws. Pohang have also turned around their form this month, beating Jeju, and coming back from two goals down to beat FC Seoul by three goals to two. Pohang are up to third in the table. Behind them are Ulsan and Gangwon, both of whom went through May undefeated, with Gangwon striker Lee Geun-ho’s form earning him a recall to the national team. May has been nothing short of disastrous for FC Seoul. Last season’s champions beat Jeonnam Dragons at the start of the month, but haven’t won in the league since, and have fallen from title challengers to a bottom-half team in the space of a month. A turgid performance at home to Busan also ended their FA Cup run, and after their abysmal showing in the Champions’ League at the start of the season, 2017 looks like it will be a trophyless year for the side from the capital. Change is needed in the summer if they are looking to challenge for an ACL place in the second half of the season. Sangju started the season well, but stuttered badly this month, picking up a solitary point, in a two-all home draw with Seoul. As a result, they’ve fallen all the way down to ninth in the table. Bottom side Incheon’s form picked up a bit in May. They earned themselves five points despite not playing a single game at home all month, but are still three points adrift of eleventh placed Gwangju.
Despite a one-nil defeat to Gwangju, Jeonbuk ended April three points clear at the top of the league, thanks mainly to wins over fellow top-four clubs Sangju and Pohang. Below them, the league is still pretty tight with only six points separating second placed Jeju United and eleventh placed Gangwon. Incheon United prop up the table with just three points to their name, largely due to defensive errors, star defender Matej Jonjic's winter move to Cerezo Osaka hitting them hard. Their match against Seoul, where they lost three-nil, conceding some very weak goals, missing some great chances, and having bad refereeing decisions go against them, sums up their season so far. At the start of the month, Jeonnam were in a similar position to Incheon, but three wins on the bounce, including a five-nil win over Ulsan, has pulled them back up to mid-table.
Suwon Bluewings finally got their first win in the league with a two-one win over Gangwon on the 22nd, with Shin Hwa-yong saving a last minute penalty to earn the three points. Kim Min-woo scored a great goal to help the Bluewings follow that win up with a second two-one win on the road, this time against Jeju United, a result which helped Suwon break back into the top six. Jeju remain second despite that result, although they have been unable to maintain their early season momentum. A few draws and defeats at the start of the month saw them lose top spot to Jeonbuk, who they face next in a top-of-the-table clash. Pohang started the month with a series of wins against the league’s strugglers which helped them climb to second in the table, and Yang Dong-hyun to the top of the goalscorer's chart, Since then however, they came unstuck against the league’s better sides, losing to Jeonbuk and Sangju in their last two matches. With Seoul, Jeju, and in-form Suwon coming up, May could see Pohang slide back down into the bottom half of the table.
Jeju United continued where they left off last season, and are top of the K-League table after recording three wins in their first three games. Their good start was built on a solid back-line that has yet to concede in the league this season, with the pick of their wins being a three-nil victory over Ulsan. Just behind Jeju in the table are Seoul and Jeonbuk with seven points apiece. Jeonbuk needed a last minute Kim Shin-wook goal to get past local rivals Jeonnam Dragons in their opening fixture, while a controversial penalty call helped Seoul turn the tide in their two-one win over Gwangju. Last season’s top two face each other in the first match back after the international break.
Down at the bottom, Jeonnam Dragons are the only team yet to pick up a point, although their fans can take some solace in the fact that they have had some difficult opening fixtures. The same goes for eleventh placed Suwon Bluewings, who had to face Seoul and Jeonbuk in the opening two rounds. Incheon United and newcomers Daegu FC are both level on points with Suwon with just two points each.
The start of the season hasn’t been without controversies. The turf at the Jeonju Civic Stadium, Jeonbuk’s temporary home ground, and at Gangwon’s Alpensia Ski Jump Arena has been in a terrible state, partly due to it being laid just before the start of the season. As a result, home fans of both teams have yet to see the quality football that their big-money squads should be able to offer. On the plus side, the KFA have been more proactive with their use of video evidence to punish players retrospectively, with FC Seoul’s Go Yohan, and Suwon’s Seo Jungjin picking up bans for violent conduct and dangerous play respectively. They have also expelled referee Kim Seongho after reviewing his performance in the match between FC Seoul and Gwangju FC.
With less than a week to go before the start of the 2017 K-League season, we take a look at how each team has bought and sold over the winter, and who is best equipped for the season ahead.
Park Chu-young’s goal against Jeonbuk won FC Seoul the title on the final day of last season. They could’ve won the double, losing on penalties in the FA Cup final to Suwon Bluewings. Of course, a major factor in Seoul’s dramatic end to last season was the points deduction that Jeonbuk received, without which Seoul would have finished at least six points behind the ACL winners. Seoul won’t be able to rely on something similar happening this season, and will need to improve if they want to retain their title.
Improvement will be difficult without a regular goal-scorer. Unfortunately for Seoul fans, Adriano, who scored thirty-five goals in all competitions last season, has moved to Chinese side Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, and there are doubts as to whether his replacement Maurinho, who has joined Seoul from Jeonnam Dragons, will be able to provide the necessary firepower to propel Seoul to the title. Midfield maestro Yojiro Takahagi has also left the club, joining FC Tokyo, with former FC Seoul captain Ha Dae-sung moving the other way. Ha Dae-sung was instrumental in Seoul’s 2012 K-League title win, but the thirty-one year old struggled for playing time last season. FC Seoul have also brought in Lee Sang-ho from rivals Suwon Bluewings to help fill the Takahagi-shaped void in midfield.
With a poor pre-season, and a tough ACL group to negotiate, Seoul fans will be hoping that their side can find a way to win, having lost two of their better players.
Without a doubt the best side in the league over the past three years, they only missed out on the title last year due to being deducted points. They also managed to win the ultimate prize in Asian football, the AFC Champions’ League. The AFC, however, have banned Jeonbuk from attempting to defend their ACL crown due to the matchfixing scandal that cost them nine points, and ultimately their K-League title, last season.
With no Champions’ League football or long flights to Australia to distract them, Jeonbuk will be hoping for a strong start to the season. If their rivals struggle to balance ACL commitments with league football then it is possible that Jeonbuk could be out of sight by the summer. That said, they have lost some of their better players over the winter, most notably Leonardo, who has left for UAE side Al-Jazira, and goalkeeper Kwon Sun-tae, who has moved to Kashima Antlers. Leonardo’s transfer, combined with a long term injury to Ricardo Lopez, and an aging strikeforce of Lee Dong-gook and Edu, could have a detrimental effect in their ability to score goals this season. Their big signing this winter was Korean international Kim Jin-soo, who joined after finding playing opportunities limited at Hoffenheim. Brazilian midfielder Eder also joins the club from Daegu. More importantly, Jeonbuk have managed to keep hold of star midfielder Lee Jae-sung, who was reportedly attracting a lot of interest from overseas.
Without the Champions’ League to worry about, and with a strong and relatively stable squad, Jeonbuk are most people’s favourites for the title.
Last year was 2009 and 2010 all over again for Bluewings supporters. Just like in those two seasons, Suwon started the season disastrously, although unlike those two seasons they never quite hit rock-bottom, before recovering and somehow qualifying for the Asian Champions’ League after lifting the FA Cup. Suwon fans this year will be hoping for a repeat of their 2008 season, the last time that they won the league, instead.
After problems on and off the field last season, Suwon fans have lots to be optimistic about this year. They might have sold their up-and-coming talent Kwon Chang-hoon, but the players brought in suggest that Suwon aim to be back in the top three this season. Korean international Kim Min-woo, and Dynamo Zagreb midfielder Damir Sovsic give the team some more options in the center of the park, and target man Park Gi-dong joins from Jeonnam Dragons to help support Santos and Johnathan up-front. Australian defender Matthew Jurman, and Pohang goalkeeper Shin Hwa-yong look like great acquisitions at the back. No wonder that some Suwon fans are quietly whispering that this could be their year.
Who would be a football manager? Despite an impressive fourth-place finish last season, manager Yoon Jung-hwan still had to deal with fans protesting about how the team were playing. Little wonder then that he decided to join Cerezo Osaka instead of stick around at Ulsan. Former Incheon manager Kim Do-hoon takes the reins at Ulsan for this season, although judging by Incheon’s form under him last season, Ulsan fans have plenty of reason to be skeptical about his appointment. Despite a poor display against Kitchee in the ACL playoffs, Ulsan will get to play in the Asian Champions’ League this season.
Goalscoring was Ulsan’s problem last season; their forty-one goals scored was the second lowest in the division. Kim Do-hoon has attempted to remedy this problem by bringing in Mislav Orsic and Lee Jong-ho, who played well together in 2014 and 2015 for Jeonnam Dragons before moving to Changchun Yatai and Jeonbuk respectively. Ulsan have also strengthened their defense with the signing of Richard Windbichler from Austria Wien, and Kim Chang-soo from Jeonbuk, with Lee Yong moving in the other direction.
After finishing third last season, Jeju have managed to keep hold of most of their best players, notably midfielder Ahn Hyun-beom. The only notable departure was that of Lee Geun-ho to Gangwon. The signing of Cho Yong-hyung and return of Aleksandar Jovanic will strengthen their defence, and the addition of Frederik Mendy, who joins from Ulsan, will offer a physical threat up-front. However, with Champions’ League football to play, fatigue could become an issue for the islanders.
After a poor start to 2016, Jeonnam rallied and nearly earned themselves an ACL spot. They have managed to keep their young squad together with very little transfer activity over the winter. Park Gi-dong’s move to Suwon, and the acquisition of Hungarian forward Robert Feczesin, were Jeonnam’s only notable deals. Fans of the south-west club will be hoping that squad cohesion can give them a strong start to the 2017 campaign as they look for another top-half finish.
Last season’s relegation favorites surprised many pundits and were unlucky to miss out on a top-half finish, falling away to eighth by the end of the season. The biggest surprise was thirty-two year-old striker Jung Jo-gook who, despite never really being prolific in his career, somehow ended up as the K-League’s top goalscorer with twenty league goals last season. Perhaps less surprisingly, he left Gwangju in the winter, moving to big-spenders Gangwon FC. Gwangju will have to make do without him and many are predicting a relegation battle this time around.
The army side had a good season in 2016, and were in the top three towards the middle of the year, before falling to sixth by the end of the season. Some promising players have joined their ranks this year, with Suwon defender Hong Chul, and FC Seoul striker Jun Yu-tae among the recent conscripts.
With ten games to go, Incheon looked dead and buried, but a managerial change and end of season run allowed them to clinch safety with a win against Suwon FC on the final day of the season. With star players Matej Jonjic and Kevin Oris departing in the winter, Incheon fans may well be worried that they might not escape the drop this time around. Bosnian Gordan Bunoza, and Australian Connor Chapman have been brought in to try and bolster the defense. Moon Seon-min, who has spent his career so far in Sweden, joins from Djurgarden, while Oris’ physical role will be taken by Dalibor Veselinovic, who joins from Belgian side Mechelen.
Pohang found themselves in real trouble last season, and only a final day victory over Seongnam saw them retain their K-League Classic status. With good goalkeepers being a precious commodity in the K-League, fans will be disappointed to see Shin Hwa-yong depart for Suwon, another notable departure is midfielder Shin Kwang-hoon, who joins FC Seoul. Swedish defender Marcus Nilsson, who spent the 2015/16 season at Fleetwood Town, joined Pohang from Norwegian side Stabaek. Cho Min-woo also joins Pohang from V-Varen Nagaksaki to help strengthen the defense, and former Jeonnam midfielder Lee Seung-hee has made the move to the east coast from Nagoya Grampus.
Newly-promoted Gangwon FC have decided to play their 2017 games at the Pyeongchang Olympic ski-jump arena, and are charging fans the highest prices in the league to witness this. Fans willing to trek deep into the mountains and fork out the big bucks can expect to see a side that the club’s owners claim can challenge for an ACL spot. Big money signings include Lee Geun-ho, Oh Beom-seok, and last season’s top scorer Jung Jo-gook. They have also brought in Cypriot defender Valentinos Sielos, and Incheon’s Vietnamese midfielder Luong Xuan Truong among others. If Gangwon can get all of these new acquisitions to gel, then a top-half finish may well be on the cards.
After earning automatic promotion by default after the league leaders Ansan Mugunghwa moved to Asan, Daegu haven’t made any real signings that suggest that they can compete at a higher level. The sale of Johnathan midway through last season, and Eder this winter, definitely doesn’t bode well for Daegu. 2017 looks like it could be a tough season for Daegu supporters.
With the winter break in Korea being almost three freezing cold months long, the opening of the transfer window has given fans at least something to keep them occupied when sitting beside the fireplace (on the ondol?) at night. Like the previous few seasons, this winter transfer window looks to be dominated by China. Already, big names like Oscar and Axel Witsel have made the move east, with many in Europe questioning their motivation. As a response to this, I wrote an article which ended up being featured in the Guardian. The article talked about how moving to the East Asia could in some respects benefit players. While Oscar and co. are busy making the headlines, another transfer to China passed under the radar of many observers, that of Kwon Kyung-won. Kwon started his career at Jeonbuk Motors, before moving to UAE side Al Ahli. His spell there was successful; the club reached the Asian Champions' League final in 2015 and ESPN reported that severel English Premier League sides were after him. Despite this, he failed to break into the Korean national team. This week, he made the move back East, not to Korea, but to Tianjin Quanjian. His transfer was the second biggest paid for any Korean player ever (the first being Son Heung-min's move to Spurs). With the restrictions on foreign players, many Korean fans worry that all of the best Korean players will move to China in order to fill the Asian player spot. At least in the case of Kwon Kyung-won, his move should get him noticed, and will hopefully lead to a chance with the national side at some point in the future.
My article on 외신남: Footy Inside recently appeared in Groove Magazine. The article includes an interview with BiggestFootballTV manager and football agent Lee Dong Jun, in which he talks about the inspiration behind creating an internet TV channel focused on football.
You can read it here: http://groovekorea.com/article/footy-inside-takes-internet/
외신남's latest video can be watched below:
After winning the league by six points in 2015, Jeonbuk bought massively in the winter to prepare for their assault on the Asian Champions’ League. They picked up the best-of-the-rest of the K-League, with Ko Moo-yeol arriving from Pohang, Lee Jong-ho joining from Jeonnam, and Lopes from Jeju among others. These massive reinforcements to what was already the best team in the K-League by a long way meant that the 2016 season threatened to be an over-by-April walkover. Suwon Bluewings finished second in 2015, but due to cutbacks by parent-company Samsung, they were basically out of the title race before the season had even begun. FC Seoul looked like Jeonbuk’s only real rivals for the title, especially after some tidy winter acquisitions such as fan favourite Dejan Damjanovic, Busan midfielder Ju Se-jong and Pohang’s Shin Jin-ho. Despite an opening day defeat to Jeonbuk, the midfield axis of Ju Se-jong and Shin Jin-ho served FC Seoul well; last year’s third-placed side were the league’s early pace-setters and were still top after ten games as well as impressing in the Asian Champions’ League. Unfortunately for Seoul, military duty robbed them of Shin Jin-ho, while Jeonbuk’s incredible form allowed them to not just overtake Seoul, but start to build a commanding lead at the top. Things got worse for Seoul in June when manager Choi Yong-soo left the club for Chinese side Jiangsu Suning. His replacement, former Pohang boss Hwang Sun-hong had a poor start which led to Jeonbuk going fifteen points clear at the top of the league.
At that point, Jeonbuk’s past came back to haunt them. The KFA passed judgement on a matchfixing scandal from a few seasons before, deciding to fine Jeonbuk and deduct them nine points. The points deducted seemed like a light punishment at the time. However, immediately afterwards, Jeonbuk lost their nerve, and a series of draws, followed by the club’s first league defeat of the season, at home to Jeju United, allowed Seoul to close the gap. On the final day of the season, Seoul were level on points with Jeonbuk. They travelled to Jeonju needing a win to clinch the title. In the fifty-eighth minute, former Monaco striker and Korea’s number one villain, Park Chu-young redeemed himself by smashing the ball across the goal into the far corner to win the title for Seoul and get some personal closure on the tough few seasons he has had since making the career-damaging move to Arsenal. Jeonbuk fans must have been absolutely sick to lose the title after only losing one match all season before their final-day encounter with Seoul. For neutrals, Jeonbuk’s policy of buying up the best players from the rest of the league made the league itself less competitive, so perhaps they don’t feel as sorry for Jeonbuk as they might have done.
Jeonbuk fans only had to wait twenty days for something to cheer about as they had reached the final of the Asian Champions’ League. After beating Seoul in the semi-finals, Jeonbuk took on the UAE’s Al Ain, whose sixty-third minute goal in the first leg made it look briefly like Jeonbuk could end their spectacular season with nothing to show for it. Two Leonardo goals restored Jeonbuk’s hopes and they headed to the Middle East just needing a draw. In the end, Al Ain’s missed penalty meant that the away leg finished one-a-piece, giving Jeonbuk the silverware that they had been chasing all season: The Asian Champions’ League.
Seongnam started the season well and were briefly top of the K-League, but the loss of star forward Tiago Alves, who moved to Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal, combined with the loss of form of 2015’s breakout star Hwang Ui-jo, meant that Seongnam went on a nightmare run, falling all the way down the table. They only won twice since July, and defeat in their final match of the season, against an equally disappointing Pohang, meant that they finished in eleventh and faced a relegation play-off against Gangwon.
Sangju Sangmu were perhaps the surprise package of the season. Widely tipped for relegation, the army side ended up finishing in the top-half of the table. The loss of players towards the end of the season when many players’ military duty ended caused a loss of form, but given their resources, Cho Jin-ho managed an impressive feat in finishing so high up the league. Busan have already snapped him up for next season’s campaign. Gwangju also had a decent season, with thirty-two year old Jung Jo-gook coming from nowhere to finish as the K-League’s top scorer with twenty league goals. Ulsan recovered from their disastrous 2015 season by finishing in fourth place and reaching the FA Cup semi-finals but this wasn’t good enough for fans who protested at the club’s poor performances towards the end of the season, so perhaps it is no surprise that manager Yoon Jong-hwan decided to leave the club for Cerezo Osaka.
Next season will see Daegu FC back in the top flight after they were promoted from the K-League Challenge. Korea’s second tier was actually won by Ansan Mugunghwa, but as the police side are moving to Asan next season, the KFA banned them from being promoted. Gangwon reached the playoff final and then beat Seongnam to earn promotion at their expense. The relegation of the former Asian champions was quite a shock, but their defeat in the play-offs was unsurprising given their end of season form. Ansan will form a new team next season, inexplicably called the ‘Ansan Greeners’. Despite the creation of this new team, the K-League Challenge still looks in poor-health, with Chungju and Goyang both almost certainly dropping out of the league.
In this week’s episode of 외신남: Footy Inside, we looked at the match-fixing problem in Asia. Four Laos National Team players were recently suspended by the AFC for alleged match-fixing. When interviewed by FOX Sports Asia correspondent Scott McIntyre, Former Laos coach Steve Darby suggested that legalizing gambling and putting that money back into football could help solve the match-fixing issue.
Earlier in the K-League season, Jeonbuk Hyundai were fined and deducted nine points for match-fixing incidents in 2013. That penalty felt a bit soft at the time, although it did end up changing the outcome of this season’s K-League title race, with FC Seoul overtaking Jeonbuk on the final day of the season. What was most surprising about that story was that the amounts of money required to fix a match was under one-thousand dollars. The fact that this could happen for such a low amount at one of Asia’s biggest and most well-financed clubs suggests that it could happen anywhere.
Even though gambling is illegal in Asia, it still happens, as Steve Darby rightly pointed out. Not only that, but there is a thriving gambling industry in Macao, Singapore, and Korea, where each country’s citizens, unable to legally gamble in their home country, fly back and forth to take a gambling vacation. Allowing, and strictly regulating, gambling on football could help the problem as it would bring more money into the game and would deprive illegal gambling rings of some of their revenue as punters start turning to legal betting channels.
However, legalized gambling alone won’t solve the match-fixing issue. Better governance at the national level is required in almost all countries. Better qualified and paid match officials are also needed to help solve the problem. With clubs in the region spending more and more on players, it is surely time that national associations deal with these underlying issues once-and-for-all so that Asian football can really kick on and become a global force.