It is easy when following our beloved football teams to get wrapped up in our own league, our own country, or at least football solely from our own continent. Here, Michael McCann explains the virtues of occasionally looking a little further afield for footballing inspiration.
It’s something I’ve always seen in FIFA. Relax, though, this isn’t yet another article about the rife corruption in football’s governing body. No, I am in fact referring to the K-League, the top-flight of Korean football.
I was aware that hosting the 2002 World Cup had been crucial in developing football in Asia, but beyond that, I had little else to go on. Until this year, my only interaction with it came through the popular video game. When playing friends, we picked teams by using the ‘randomise’ function three times each. After each ‘randomise’ we would choose whether to ‘stick’ with our current selection, or ‘twist’ again.
The K-League, offering some of the game’s lowest team statistics, became known as an automatic ‘twist’ league. When someone received it on their third and final ‘twist’, their primary emotion was one of resigned acceptance.
Forgive me, dear K-League lovers, I knew no better.
I knew nothing of the players, managers, fans or match-day routines. In short, I knew nothing. So when I was handed the opportunity to commentate regularly on K-League matches, my initial reaction was pure intrigue. What exactly would the K-League be like?
Now one season later, my interest in learning more still remains, but is now complemented by a new-found sense of appreciation for the K-League. While my experience has sadly not included any free trips out to Korea, it has been a great chance to learn about football’s presence in a part of the world normally only referred to in the UK media in relation to politics.
Following leagues from different continents is a strong way of reminding oneself of the extensive global reach of football, and as such, it is also a sharp reminder of how important it is that FIFA (the organisation, this time) is managed correctly.
With my inaugural season following the K-League over, it feels only right to look back at two individual stories that have captured my interest. Here are the details behind one particular manager and player who have really added a huge amount to the K-League this year, in my humble opinion as a newcomer.
Player of the Year: Adriano – Daejeon Citizen/FC Seoul
Honourable mention: Edu – Jeonbuck
Though it is unusual to pick someone who changed clubs in January, Adriano, or Carlos Adriano de Sousa Cruz, appears a deserved winner. The accolade comes particularly for his strong form from the New Year onwards, before which things had not been so rosy.
The Brazilian’s goals had ensured Daejeon an instant return to the top flight the previous season, but this year was a total disaster, finishing bottom of the league. Coach Cho Jin Ho was harshly sacked, but Adriano’s personal form was perfectly reasonable, though his frustrations with new management led to a move away.
FC Seoul grabbed him on a free transfer in an audacious swoop. The gamble most certainly paid off – so much so it now barely appears a gamble at all.
Looking back, it is no misrepresentation to consider this a K-League equivalent of when Sir Alex Ferguson stole Eric Cantona for Manchester United at just £1 million. Whilst Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds, or Daejeon in this case, seemed pleased enough to be rid of a striker with attitude problems, in their eyes, the current employers reaped the benefits.
It was with Seoul where Adriano most impressed, pretty much single-handedly improving the team’s attacking threat. The difference was drastic – Seoul scored as many goals in the 23 games before Adriano arrived as they did in the next 15 games thereafter (26, for the stattos among you). They went from 1.13 to 1.73 goals per game.
Most importantly, Seoul’s points-per-game rose from 1.54 to 1.8. Impressive.
Though there were other factors contributing to this improvement, Adriano joining was clearly the primary one. I’ve seen it first hand, commentating on his winning goals in the dying minutes against both Jeonnam & Seognam, both strikes far from tap-ins. Those goals earned four points before you even look elsewhere, and when you do, there is plenty to look at.
Adriano scored 10 in just 13 games to help Seoul secure fourth place, which had appeared unlikely at best midway through the season. He also struck the deciding goal in an FA Cup final victory against Icheon, ensuring qualification for the Asian Champions League next year.
Next season, Adriano will be expected to lead Seoul’s title charge, and he certainly has all the ability to do so. Not a bad free transfer.
An honourable mention goes to Edu (not the former Arsenal midfielder for English readers), whose goals and assists were crucial to Jeonbuck stretching so far clear at the top.
His departure left them short going forward, and was a considerable reason for the eventual title champions’ dramatic late slump in form.
Manager of the Year: Kim Hak-Bum – Seongnam
Honourable mention: Choi-Kang Hee – Jeonbuck
Kim Hak-Bum earns this for securing a top-half finish on minimal resources at Seongnam.
That achievement is particularly significant in the K-League due to its unconventional format. 12 teams face each other thrice in the season, then the table is split, and your final five games come against the sides in your half of it. If you have earned the right to face other top-half sides, you cannot finish outside of it in the eventual standings.
This explains why Jeju finished 6th this season, despite claiming less points (50), than either Ulsan (53) or Incheon (51), who finished just below them, but benefitted from a softer last five games.
If that doesn’t quite all make sense, fear not, you’re not the first and certainly won’t be the last to struggle with understanding the K-League format – it took me weeks! All you need to know is that it makes a top-half finish important for clubs like Seongnam, as a booster of instant revenue from more glamorous fixtures. It also raises club prestige to attract better players, which in turn creates an outside shot of even reaching the Asian Champions League places.
As such, Kim Hak-Bum’s achievement in leading Seongnam to 5th place in the K-League this season should not be underestimated.
Seongnam had won the FA Cup on penalties in 2014, but that masked a poor League season, where they only just avoided relegation in a play-off against Gwangju. They came into this season with limited expectations, but ended up earning the right to battle it out with the big boys, and their manager is the main reason for that.
The 55-year-old worked hard on making Seongnam better organised, and this translated into them conceding 33 goals in 38 games, just 0.87 per game. That naturally made them very hard to defeat, with Seongnam losing just eight games; a joint low alongside Pohang Steelers, with top two Jeonbuck and Suwon Bluewings losing nine.
Seognam had a budget that was not a patch on these competitors, yet finished 20 points and four places higher than they did in 2014 – a superb effort from Hak-Bum.
An honourable mention goes to Choi-Kang Hee, who led Jeonbuck Motors to a fourth title in just seven years.
However, Hee had a large budget to work with, and Jeonbuck were expected by many to retain their crown at the start of this season. Moreover, having had a lead of a dozen points at one stage, their poor late form will be a major concern heading into next season.
So there you have it, there is no harm in delving into a foreign league, particularly in another continent.
If nothing else it might just give you some new information to impress mates with when getting beaten by them at FIFA. Again.
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