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.
Gary White: Former Guam National Manager
Dan Harris: Seoul Eland Coach
A look into the recent match-fixing scandal that saw Jeonbuk deducted nine points. Could such an incident happen again?
After Samsung cut funding to Suwon Bluewings, the club had to tighten their belt. Here is an in-depth look into corporate funding in the K-League.
With China breaking records in the 2016 winter transfer window, what will the knock-on effects be for the rest of Asia?
FIFA's rules on youth transfers were aimed to protect youths, but in the case of Lee Seung-woo and other young Barcelona players, it could have damaging and long-lasting effects on their careers.