The knockout stage of the AFC Champions League gets under way on Tuesday night. Teams from Australia, China, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Uzbekistan will battle it out for a berth in the quarter-finals. They are joined in the round of 16 by the Korea Republic who are represented by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors who play Melbourne Victory, while FC Seoul travel to Saitama to face Urawa Red Diamonds.
With one of the best records in the groups, Seoul will fancy their chances of going all the way to the final. Should they lift the trophy in November, they will join the ranks of Korea Republic’s six other winners of the competition. Gyeongbuk’s Pohang Steelers are the most prolific side with three titles to their name.
This should come as no surprise to connoisseurs of the Asian game.
Since the 1950s, Korea Republic has been the continent’s outstanding ambassador to football. Their FIFA World Cup pedigree was established in 1954 as only the second Asian team to compete at the tournament. For pub quiz goers, Dutch East Indies was the first.
Almost half a century later, Korea Republic’s status as a soccer powerhouse was cemented when they reached the 2002 semi-finals on home soil.
Led by “Golden” Guus Hiddink, the Red Devils gained sporting immortality with a proud and loud public. Millions came out in their droves, clapping their red bambams to cries of “Dae~han Minguk!” (“Great Korea!”).
Though baseball is the nation’s favourite pastime, football’s popularity has remained stable, especially around internationals.
I saw this for myself a couple of weeks ago for Seoul’s Group F clash with Sanfreece Hiroshima of Japan. A couple of friends and I walked into one of Itaewon’s chic bars in central Seoul where the match was being shown. Chatting to the crowd of Seoulites, it was clear just how much love there was for the game.
There is nothing more English than finding a bar in another country to watch the football. Yet, this felt distinctly South Korean. Everyone’s attention was wholly focused on the game, interrupted only by a tactical shot of soju. The occasional whiff of street food would tickle the nostrils.
And that passion was for a fairly inconsequential fixture. All year round, South Koreans cheer on one of the 23 teams making up the K League. From Seongnam to Jeonnam, Daejon to Daegu, some of the biggest sides in Asian football battle it out.
The Classic and Challenge divisions have bred their fair share of stars. Park Ji-sung and Lee Chun-soo are among the country’s household names. A lack of foreign players has allowed South Koreans to flourish before the cream of the crop are shipped off to the European top flight.
From a foreigner’s perspective, the K League is in good health. More Ki Sung-yeung’s, Lee Young-pyo’s and Lee Chung-yong’s (all Seoul FC alumni) will surely pass through the gates of Sangam Stadium in the coming years and decades.