For years the K-League has prided itself on one thing going for it – hey, at least we’re good in the Asian Champions League. The numbers don’t lie – the AFC’s club league coefficient has ranked the K League top for over a decade. In 2012, Ulsan Hyundai were champions. In 2013 and 2014, Seoul made it to the finals and semi-finals. In 2015, all 4 entered K League teams qualified for the tournament’s knockout stages, an extremely rare accomplishment, and last year, Jeonbuk Hyundai won it all.
You might ask yourself – so what? 2017 was just an off-season. But off-seasons are a big deal. If only one EPL team made it to the knockout stages of the Champions League, the press would go mad. Combine this with the fact that Japan is taking the competition more seriously, with the slow and steady rise of the Chinese Super League, and this year could be the year the K League’s dominance in Asia came to an end. And this year, that end took the form of a bust-up – a violent clash nearing fisticuffs – that resulted in suspensions, bans and dishonor to the Korean domestic scene.
Jeonbuk Hyundai were champions in the 2016 Asian Champions League, and had a strong case to present to defend their crown. One of the most successful seasons in Korean footballing history was mired, however, by that famous bribery scandal, which ultimately cost Jeonbuk the title, despite never putting a foot wrong all season. Nonetheless, Jeonbuk still qualified as K-League runners-up – hang on, plot twist. The AFC ultimately decided early this year upon reviewing Jeonbuk’s case and in light of pressure from other clubs that Jeonbuk’s 2012 episode of match-fixing was enough to suspend Jeonbuk from the 2017 competition – make of that what you will. A furious Jeonbuk management appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but their appeal was denied. The lack of Asian competition for Jeonbuk also prevented the Green Machine from acquiring the services of nifty midfielder Miroslav Orsic, who instead chose Ulsan Hyundai. Regardless, Jeonbuk’s absence from this competition revealed that the depth of the K League isn’t as great as we’d like to think it is.
Ulsan, unexpectedly promoted to the Asian Champions League as Jeonbuk’s replacements, had to go through the play-off round to qualify for the group stage proper. But in the first competitive game involving a Korean team of the domestic season, Kim Do-hoon’s new side showed very little cohesion or chemistry, and were fortunate to earn a penalty shootout against Kitchee, the Hong Kong champions. A penalty shootout saved the Tigers’ blushes, as they avoided an embarrassing upset on spot kicks. But it was never to be for the Horang-i, who, despite pummeling a very poor Brisbane side 6-0 and 3-2, was not able to score against Kashima Antlers or Muangthong United, the Japanese and Thai champions.
Over to the capital city, where Dejan Damjanovic and FC Seoul were chasing an Asian crown that has eluded them in their club history. But Seoul got off to their quintessential slow start and were beat by Shanghai in front of a surprising 18,000 in their first game at home, before being spanked 5-2 by the eventual tournament champions Urawa. As they went down 3-0 inside an hour in their third game, it was really over, and Seoul’s 5 year streak of qualifying for Asia had come to an end.
Suwon were immensely unlucky not to get out of a group that had the heavy sluggers, Guangzhou Evergrande and this year’s J-League champions Kawasaki Frontale. Half of the group’s games ended in draws, and the bottom side Eastern (of Hong Kong) were the whipping boys, so all that really mattered were the games between the top three sides. Suwon did well to get two hard-fought draws away in Guangzhou and Kawasaki, but anything less than perfect wouldn’t suffice in the group, and their 1-0 loss on April 25th at home against Kawasaki did them in. Their wait for Asian glory was prolonged to 12 years, when Cha Bum-keun was their manager.
That left Jeju United, who were in the competition for just the second time in their franchise history. Having quickly ascended up the K League tables in the last couple of years under the leadership of manager Cho Sung-hwan, Jeju’s return to Asia was nothing short of breathtaking and exciting. After falling to Jiangsu 1-0 on a Ramires strike in the 90th minute, Jeju made amends away at Gamba, with 4 goals. One of them was a wonder-goal from Lee Chang-min gave him confidence for a strong season that culminated with the midfielder getting capped by the senior team. Though they picked up only 1 point in a home-and-away with Adelaide, Jeju came from behind in front of an intimidating crowd in Nanjing – the only home loss by a CSL side in the group stages or knockout stages – which inspired them to 2-0 win in Seogwipo against Gamba. At least we qualified one team for the knockout stage.
Nope, just kidding. What happened next in the round of 16 was extraordinary, unsavory, and a disgraceful advert for the Korean game. Jeju had entered the away leg of their Round of 16 side up 2-0, and just had to hold that lead in Urawa. But they blew the advantage in just the first half, and were clinging on by the skin of their teeth – and that was before they went down to ten men with Cho Yong-hyung picking his second yellow with 9 minutes before extra time. With just 6 minutes to go until penalties, Ryota Moriwaki put Urawa up 3-2, and Jeju had no reply but frustration. That frustration bubbled into a full-out brawl. Flying elbows, a lot of chest-thumping (in a bad way), flailing kicks and players chasing each other into the dressing room. The referees were unable to cool the tensions and eventually sent off two more Jeju United players for instigating the brawl. The headlines in the Japanese sports magazines after the game more or less read “This is Korean football.” Eventually, two large suspensions were dealt to Jeju players for the hot-headed altercations – Cho Yong-hyung was initially fined 6 months for shoving the referee after being sent off, while Baek Dong-gyu – a substitute – was given 3 months for an elbow. Though both suspensions were eventually watered down, both clubs paid hefty fines to the AFC and Jeju’s reputation, thrown into disrepute.
I’ll let this video sum it up:
It was, without a doubt, the worst campaign by K League clubs in the Asian Champions League in years. Three lacked any competitive edge, and the only knockout stage qualifier left not with a whimper, but a bang – a violent, costly, disgusting ban. One can only hope that this year will be the exception, rather than the trend, but with March’s 1-0 loss to China and these poor performances, suffice it to say that lovers of the Korean game will fear that will go down in history as a pivotal moment in Asian footballing history.