New on SocTakes: K League explained

k league

Image credit: K League 1

Since the United States and Canada are still under lockdown for the foreseeable future (and no, these soft reopenings in a few states aren’t a sign of things getting better, and are likely to cause even more problems), it’s been quiet around here. Even my in-progress “updating the pyramid for 2020” post has been shelved until we figure out what the hell soccer will look like come August.

So, with all that said, let’s talk about a league that I love that will actually start their season this week, the K League.

If you’re not as invested in Korean pop culture as either I or my colleague Colton Coreschi are, you might not be familiar with South Korea’s national soccer league. Here’s everything you’ll need to know about the K League, its teams, and how to watch.

THE LEAGUE

The K League is technically two linked leagues forming the first and second tiers of the South Korean pyramid. The league was originally founded as a five-team professional competition back in 1983, reorganizing the largely semi-pro/amateur league featuring company-owned-and-operated teams.

The league went fully professional for the 1987 season, shrinking back from a high of eight clubs in 1984 and 1985 back to just five, but by 1995 had regrown to once again reach eight member clubs. Since then, the league has continued to gradually expand and grow, reaching 10 teams in 1997, 12 in 2003 and its peak of 16 teams by 2011.

Late in 2011, the Korea Football Association announced plans to launch a national second-division league for 2013, complete with promotion and relegation beginning at the end of the 2012 season. Teams applied for spots in the new second division K League Challenge with six granted entry, while the top flight was renamed the K League Classic.

For the 2012 and 2013 seasons, two additional teams would be relegated from the first tier in an effort to balance the two leagues and limit each to 12 clubs and evaluate the viability of the six recently admitted teams. Following some financial struggles on the part of semi-pro teams making the jump, the decision was made not to integrate the semi-professional levels with the K League’s promotion and relegation structure.

For the 2018 season, the leagues were renamed to eliminate the Classic/Challenge confusion, with the top tier becoming K League 1 and the second K League 2. Further down the pyramid, ahead of the 2020 season, the various semi-pro and amateur leagues were reorganized and renamed, forming the K3 through K7 Leagues above the regional amateur competitions. Promotion and relegation was also implemented between the K3 League and K4 League, and from K5 down to K7 — all very structured and logical.

Currently, there are still 12 teams in K League 1, while K League 2 has remained steady at 10 teams since 2017. In K League 1, each team normally plays a 38-game unbalanced season featuring three games against each team plus an additional split-table final five games, while the K League 2 normally features a simple 36-game balanced schedule with four games against every team.

The top team in K League 2 earns guaranteed promotion, while the bottom team in K League 1 is relegated. The next three best teams in K League 2 then hold a distinctively Korean climbing-the-ladder playoff. Third and fourth place have a two-game series with the winner advancing to face second place. Following another two-game series, the winner advances to face the 11th-place team in K League 1. The winner of that two-game series gets the spot.

In South Korea, much like in the United States, soccer isn’t the biggest game in town, and the country is firmly a baseball nation. K League attendances look similar to those in MLS or the USL, and players in the top flight earn wages comparable to veteran MLS talent in the $150,000-$200,000 territory.

One more note before we dive into the 22 teams: in Asia, particularly Korea and Japan, it’s common for a sports team’s name to be based more on the corporate owners or sponsors with regional indicators given secondary importance. With that, onto the clubs.

THE CLUBS

For this, since there’s a lot, I’ll be running quickly through each club and its history, in alphabetical order, starting with League 1.

K League 1

Busan IPark

Busan IPark is one of the three remaining teams from the original five back in 1983, and with that comes a history of success, although following the collapse of Daewoo in 1999, the club has struggled. The club was bought by IPark Construction in 2000, which later merged into HDC Group, who haven’t been as willing to spend money as Daewoo was previously. This decline culminated in Busan’s relegation in the 2015 season, followed by three-consecutive failed runs in the promotion playoffs. Last year, Busan put together one of its strongest campaigns in recent years, finished second, and beat Gyeongnam FC 2-0 over two legs to win promotion back to the top flight.

Daegu FC

Daegu FC is one of the recent success stories of a small community club turning things around. After years of lower table finishes from 2003 through 2012, the club was relegated in 2013. In 2016, they put together an incredible season to finish second and were promoted as the best eligible team in the table. Since then, attendance has been climbing, the club has improved its position each of the past three seasons, and they won their first trophy in 2018. They also routinely sell out their new, more intimate stadium. As a community-owned team, the mayor of Daegu serves as chairman with the local populace able to buy in as members. They’re no longer the only government-owned team, but they were the first.

Gangwon FC

Gangwon FC is the first of the “country” teams, playing in the rural and sparsely populated Gangwon Province. Owned by the provincial government, the team usually falls in the bottom half of budgets with one of the smallest markets in Korean sports. Despite early struggles and a relegation in 2013, the club has been back in the top flight since 2017 and has been a reliable mid-table team ever since. Gangwon has one of the smaller fan bases in the league, but they’re fiercely loyal, taking a lot of pride in their rural provincial identity.

Gwangju FC

Gwangju FC has been a quintessential yo-yo club since their debut in 2011. They were relegated in 2012, promoted in 2014, relegated again in 2017, and just recently promoted back after winning the 2019 K League 2 title. So far, their best top-flight finish is eighth, back in 2016. After cycling through five managers across their first seven seasons, former international Park Jin-sub has brought some much-needed stability to Gwangju, and things are finally looking up for the club.

Incheon United FC

Incheon United is an interesting team, known more for a series of controversies, strange managerial decisions and last-minute survival runs than any major results. After finishing a disastrous 12th out of 13 in their first season, the club pulled off a dramatic turnaround under caretaker-turned-full-time-manager Chang Woe-Ryong, finishing second in 2005. They have never made it back to the top three. They made the FA Cup Final for the first time in 2015, losing to FC Seoul. Since then, they’ve finished either ninth or 10th the last four years. Entering their 17th season, they’re already on their 10th full time manager. Despite all that, they’ve never been relegated, and still manage to draw decently well.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC

  • Founded: 1994 (as Chonbuk Dinos)
  • Home Stadium: Jeonju World Cup Stadium (42,477)
  • Owner: Hyundai Motor Company
  • Manager: Jose Morais
  • League Titles: 2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019
  • FA Cups: 2000, 2003, 2005
  • Last season: 1st in K League 1

Jeonbuk were well known for years as a solidly above-average team for much of the late ’90s and into the 2000s. They won a few FA Cups, finished in the top five a few times, and were a good if unspectacular team. Then, ahead of the 2009 season, they reinforced their midfield and signed a man named Lee Dong-gook from Seongnam. Lee too had been good but not great, and yet something crazy happened. Lee and Jeonbuk went on a tear, winning two titles in three years, and became the most dominant team in K League history. Since 2009, their worst finish has been third, they’ve won the league seven times in 11 seasons and wrapped up their third-consecutive title last year. This has led the smaller-market provincial side to build one of the biggest fanbases in the country, and Jeonbuk is easily the early favorite for the 2020 season.

Pohang Steelers

  • Founded: 1973 (as Pohang Steelworks FC)
  • Home Stadium: Pohang Steel Yard (17,443)
  • Owner: POSCO
  • Manager: Kim Gi-dong
  • League Titles: 1986, 1988, 1992, 2007, 2013
  • FA Cups: 1996, 2008, 2012, 2013
  • Last Season: 4th in K League 1

Pohang Steelers are one of the oldest and most consistent teams in the league. Dating back to the factory team era, Pohang have the very apt name of being run for their entire history by POSCO, formerly known as Pohang Iron and Steel Company. They’re a blue collar team from a blue collar town with a blue collar industry, and it permeates their culture throughout. Despite that, they’ve remained remarkably consistent, most recently winning a double in 2013. They’re also the most successful Korean team in the AFC Champions League, winning it on three occasions. They’re not nearly as rich compared to the Hyundai-backed giants, but they consistently punch above their weight.

File:Sangju Sangmu FC.png

Sangju Sangmu FC

  • Founded: 1984 (as Sangmu FC), Refounded 2011
  • Home Stadium: Sangju Civic Stadium (15,042)
  • Owner: Sangju City Government and Korea Armed Forces Athletic Corps
  • Manager: Kim Tae-wan
  • League Titles: N/A
  • FA Cups: N/A
  • Last Season: 7th in K League 1

To explain Sangju Sangmu, I first need to explain the South Korean conscription policy. Due to the fact that South Korea is still technically at war with their northern neighbor, every single adult man must perform compulsory military service, for a time frame ranging from 18 months for active duty soldiers, up to three years for people like lawyers or doctors. Athletes are not exempt unless they meet strict criteria for international achievements, which most don’t. Therefor, the South Korean military runs professional teams in each sport for athletes (even eSports!), with Sangmu serving as the military team in the K League. Each year, 15 young athletes join the team for a two-year loan, concurrent with their military enlistment, and once they complete their mandatory service, they’re free to return to their original clubs. This means that Sangmu doesn’t really focus on its identity or competing for trophies much, and they usually find themselves in the bottom half of the table.

Seongnam FC

  • Founded: 1989 (as Ilhwa Chunma)
  • Home Stadium: Tancheon Stadium (16,146)
  • Owner: Seongnam City Government
  • Manager: Kim Nam-Il
  • League Titles: 1993, 1994, 1995, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2006
  • FA Cups: 1999, 2011, 2014
  • Last Season: 9th in K League 1

Seongnam have moved around a good bit since their launch, as part of the K League’s campaign in the early ’90s to distribute teams outside of just the Seoul core. Before their move, they won three in a row, and then after their first move to the city of Cheonan, they won three in a row again. Since then, they’ve been sold from their corporate founders Ilhwa to the city of Seongnam, becoming another community owned team under the Seongnam FC name. Results have been mixed, with an FA Cup win in 2014 and a second-place finish in 2018 interspersed with a narrow escape from relegation in 2016. They have been able to build a more consistent name for themselves as a Seongnam-specific team, capturing that specific satellite city of Seoul, but sill struggle for attention against the nearby giant in FC Seoul.

FC Seoul

FC Seoul are the most popular, best-drawing team in the country, with a long history dating back to the mid ’80s, and yet despite their support and their owner’s unusually deep pockets, success hasn’t been consistent for the team. The team was a pawn for years during the merger of Goldstar and Lucky to form LG, and then the separation of GS Group as a separate entity in the mid-2000s. Since then, chairman Huh Chang-soo, owner of GS Group, has been reluctant to spend money on his team, leading in 2018 to FC Seoul facing its first relegation playoffs. Chairman Huh has been accused of meddling in team affairs and managerial decisions, much to the fanbase’s chagrin. That said, they’re still a consistent threat even with their relatively small budget.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Suwon was created specifically by Samsung to be their team right by several of their major headquarters, and with that came a lot of money. The big spending saw Suwon win two titles early, but since then, success has been a lot more sporadic and the corporate owners have tightened the budget. This has left the Bluewings competing more for the Korean FA Cup in recent years, winning two of the past four, and simply hoping for the best in the league table. That said, they remain one of the more popular teams in the country, and are the second biggest team in the Seoul area.

Ulsan Hyundai FC

The other Hyundai-backed team, Ulsan Hyundai hasn’t been nearly as absurdly dominant as their corporate cousins, with the dubious honor of more second-place finishes than any other team at eight. They have won their two championships, and they’re rarely out of the top six, but there’s been a bit of a little brother vibe compared to Jeonbuk. The Ulsan faithful however have consistently turned out for their team for years, and they routinely rank in the top four in attendance. Given how agonizingly close Ulsan came last year, literally losing the title by a single goal scored, don’t count them out.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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