When you think of politics and football, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think to just a couple weeks ago when Atletico Madrid’s far-right Frente Atletico fought with Deportivo La Coruna’s left-leaning Riazor Blues? Or maybe you remember the story of Rayo Vallecano helping an 85 year-old woman find a place to live after being evicted from her home? Did you think of the international match between Albania and Serbia when the match was called off after a drone carrying a flag of ‘Greater Albania’ was flown over the pitch? Did you think, a bit closer to home, of the banner of Ahn Jung-geun that was displayed at the East Asian Cup last year at the match between Korea and Japan? All are good (and recent) examples of how football and politics can mix. Here in Korea, the two have been in the news recently, but for a much different reason.
“It’s regrettable that politics has taken precedence over players and clubs.
Should we play a game of ‘who said it?’ If you’ve read Roy’s midweek listings post, you already know the answer is Korea national team boss Uli Stielike. Why did he say it? Well, we’ll come to that in a minute. But first lets talk a bit about sports in Korea and politics.
For most of the footballing-world, politics and football collide in the form of ultras. In countries like Italy and Spain, it’s hard to find an Ultra group that does not actively promote a certain political view (often far-right). Is that true in Korea as well? Short answer, no it’s not true in Korea. Suwon’s Frente Tricolor have been pictured displaying flags that have neo-Nazi symbols on them (that have been labeled as symbols of hate by Korean police), and I’ve personally seen them waving Che Guevara flags as well. I’ve seen the same flags in the Jeonbuk curva with the Mad Green Boys. Does this mean that Suwon’s ultras have some strange mixed political identity or that Jeonbuk’s fans follow the provinces traditional left-leanings? No, they’re just (unwisely) copying what they’ve seen on TV in Europe. At the domestic level politics and sports rarely interact. Sports are sports. Politics are politics.
The only time you see them (often) together on the field is when the national team plays. Think of the aforementioned Ahn Jung-geun banner. Or the other banner at the same match that criticized Japan for “forgetting their history”. Park Jong-woo’s “독도 우리 땅!” sign at the 2012 Olympics. Ahn Jung-hwan’s ‘Apollo Ohno speed skating’ celebration at the 2002 World Cup, and the list goes on. *okay so the last one is about another sport, but it still had political undertones as it references US influence in sports, and there was also rampant anti-American sentiment at the time as two Korean children were killed by a US army vehicle*
For the most part, Korean sport fans are largely apolitical when it comes to local sports, particularly the K League. I’ve heard stories of some nastiness between Lotte Giant and KIA Tiger fans over in the KBO (although most happened years ago), but you rarely see anything when Busan IPark and Gwangju FC meet. I’m not aware of any political things occurring when Gyeongnam and Gwangju met in the promotion-relegation playoff just last week. History note, the current rivalry between the two regions (often referred to by their older names – Youngnam and Honam) largely stems from deep rooted political divisions. Gyeongnam has produced a number of modern South Korea’s presidents, notably the military leaders/dictators from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Under their reign, liberal, anti-government parties (largely based in Jeolla-do) were often violently suppressed by the military and intelligence community. Many in Jeolla-do still feel that their is too much of a “Gyeongsang-old boy connection” in Korean politics.
Anyway, back to the sports and now. For most fans, sports are just sports. On match day you go to the stadium, eat some food, drink some beer/soju, cheer for the team every now and then, and go home when it’s done. They don’t think about the performance after the game. They don’t worry about injuries or suspensions. They don’t think about the team other than when they’re at the stadium. This is both good and bad, but that’s another topic for another post. Suffice it say, politics are rarely seen and heard at the stadium.
There is however, one big meeting of sports and politics in Korea. That is in the form of team ownership. Next season, there will be 23 teams in the K League Classic and Challenge.
Of those 23 teams, one is fan-owned/propped by corporate sponsors (Bucheon 1995).
10 teams are owned by chaebols (corporations). They are:
Busan (Hyundai Development Company)
Jeju (SK Group)
Jeonbuk (Hyundai Motor Company)
Seoul (GS Group)
Suwon (Samsung/Cheil Industries)
Seoul E-Land (E-Land Group)
Chungju (Hummel Korea)
2 teams are run by the national government. Sangju (army) and Ansan (police).
The remaining 10 are run by local governments. They are:
Suwon City (city)
It is here, we find the main crossroad between sports and politics in Korea. It is also this reason, that I found Uli Stielike’s comment ignorant and unnecessary.
I agree with him in principle. That sports and politics should be kept apart, for good and for bad. The story of Rayo Vallecano (a club with known left-leaning political views) helping 85-year old Carmen Martinez Ayuso is very touching, many praised the ultras of Egyptian club Al Ahly when they stood against the military dictatorship of Hosmi Mubarak. Yet these kind of “positive” acts are generally few and far between. Ultras are often in the news for negative things, such as the aforementioned brawl between Frente Atletico and Ultras Riazor. And while, that particularly incident may fall at the extreme end of the negative spectrum, there are many other nasty and unpleasant things the ultras bring when it comes to political statements.
But back to Stielike’s comment, he is not speaking of these kind of acts. He is speaking of a statement by Gyeongnam governor (and team owner) Hong Joon-pyo. Governor Yoon said that the government will conduct a special audit on Gyeongnam FC and decide what measures to take. He specifically said that one potential measure is the dissolution of the team due to the province’s financial struggles and the potential difficulty in securing outside sponsorship now that the club will play in the K League Challenge. This is the sore point, and it’s here that I want to explain why Stielike is out of line.
Why Does Gyeongnam FC Exist?
Gyeongnam FC was created in 2006 and has always been a citizen team. Gyeongnam FC was NOT created to be a purely sporting entity. It was created as a marketing tool. A way to promote the province of Gyeongnam around the country, Asia, and (in theory) the world. The sport of football was purely the medium used to promote it. Once you understand this key factor, Governor Hong’s comments make more sense, and Stielike’s less.
The Nature of Government Ownership
The exact amount each government gives it’s team varies. But for Gyeongnam the number is (according to Hong) 13 billion won a year (about $13 million). Not a huge sum, but not a small one either for a provincial government. Especially when one considers that the Gyeongnam is already stretching their annual budget to the max and new welfare programs are being pushed onto them by the national government with little financial assistance.
It’s here we find a moral problem, and that is what is the purpose of government? My opinion (and this is a very oversimplified statement of it) is that government exists to provide for the safety and well-being of the people it overseas.
So, if you’re the governor of Gyeongnam-do, and are presented with the following situation, what do you do? You have a football team that is normally given $13 million a year. Since it’s start eight-years ago, the team has largely struggled and rarely reached the heights of Korean football. Attendance has never been very high (this season it averaged about 4,500 in a city with a population over 1 million). This season the performances were largely poor and they’ve been demoted to a league that averaged about 1,000 people per game and has little media visibility, and it is not guaranteed they will be promoted straight away next season. A long wait, like that experienced by other big city teams such as Daegu, is possible.
On the other hand you are in charge of a province that is strapped for cash and is being confronted with an aging population, stagnate economy, and many social welfare mandates being issued by a national government which is unwilling to provide a huge amount of financial assistance. What do you do?
The logical statement (from a politician/business perspective) is to say what Hong said, “Professionals are judged by their outcome.” And the outcome in this case is failure by virtually every standard. Making money? No. Winning titles? No. Promoting the “Gyeongnam brand”? No. Staying in the top-flight? No. Money is needed elsewhere, why continue “wasting” it on a failing venture?
The Conflict and Stielike’s Error
The problem with Stielike’s comment is that he’s looking at it from a completely different perspective. He’s looking at it from a pure sporting perspective. Stielike also comes from a place where football is part of the fabric of life there, and the highs and lows of relegation-promotion are well-established aspects of the game. I’ve already touched on the first two issues. Hong is looking at it from political-business perspective, so it makes sense that he does not see things the same as Stielike. While football has been in Korea for a long time, the sport does not have the obsessive nature that it does in Germany or Europe in general. Hong himself does not have any real connection to the game.
The third issue is one that I have not touched on yet, and will only do so briefly (again it’s an issue that probably deserves it’s own post to discuss it’s merits), and that is the concept of promotion and relegation. While Europe has used the practice for years and years, it’s worth remembering that it’s only been used in Korea for three years (including this year). Relegation is an extremely painful process, one that can be incredibly damaging to teams. For most sports and football fans it’s a devastating but accepted practice. But again, Hong is not a sports fan or sports man, he’s a politician.
The “Unspoken” Politics
So, let’s shift gears here and bit and venture into the “unknown”. Into an area of politics and football that many suspect exists, but is rarely proven. That is the world of football, referees, and money. Take a look at virtually any league in the world, and there will be some team that is accused by rival fans of using political influence/money to get referees/league officials to help them win. Whether it’s Real Madrid and Franco in Spain, Juventus and the Agnellis in Italy, Manchester United and Ferguson in England, or whoever else. Korea is no different. Here there is the chaebol clubs vs the non-chaebol clubs, and then there is a smaller set of the Hyundai clubs vs the non-Hyundai clubs.
As mentioned earlier, there will be 10 chaebol clubs next season. Eight of them will play in the Classic. Those same eight took the top 8 places in this year’s Classic. Coincidence? Depends on who you ask. The likely truth is simply that the chaebol teams spend more money than their government-owned counterparts. Mainly in the form of player wages. As such they will likely have better players than the citizen teams. But, many fans of citizen clubs have routinely claimed that league officials routinely favor the chaebol clubs. Usually, like in other counties, these claims are limited to ultras on the internet posting messages on boards and cafes. But this year there was a twist.
Both the aforementioned Hong Joon-pyo and Seongnam mayor Lee Jae-myeong have publicly hit out at the league and questioned the neutrality of match officials. Again, while it’s not uncommon for owners to criticize officials in other countries, it’s a relatively uncommon practice here in Korea. I can’t think of another recent example of an owner so openly doing so.
“Everyone knows that the home field advantage lies not in having partisan fans in the stands, but in biased officiating.” – Gyeongnam-do governor, Hong Joon-pyo
Lee Jae-myeong took it a step further as he specifically cited three instances of biased refereeing (10-26 vs Ulsan, 9-20 vs Jeju, and 8-17 vs Busan). Again it’s worth mentioning that those three teams are all chaebol teams. Lee’s entire rant against the league is rather long, and if you’re interested in reading it (all in Korean) you can go to his Facebook page. It is the post on 11-27.
So, does it happen? Are Lee Jae-myeong and Hong Joon-pyo correct in their comments? There is no hard-evidence to suggest it happens, but the accusations are common. The penalty Lee complained about against Ulsan was incredibly soft, and many (myself included in a moment of extreme cynicism) wondered aloud if it was the official attempting to guarantee the Hyundai-owned club their place in the top six. Similar accusations, albeit on a lesser scale, were murmured around Busan’s sudden rise from relegation places to clear safety at the end of the season (again Hyundai-owned).
League and chaebol-owners will always proclaim their innocence of course, and it’s a tad unfair to tar them all with no evidence to back their claim. Granted, their image may have taken a bit of a hit when reports emerged in the post-2018/2022 World Cup bidding that Chung Mong-gyu had actively entered and done backroom deals with a number of other countries (although it didn’t seem to get much press here).
This post is in danger of (if not already) getting wildly out of hand. It is a topic that is complex and difficult to sort through. It is lamentable when politics enter the sporting world. And certainly I’d hate to see a team fold simply because they (deservedly) got relegated. But, the nature of government-ownership complicates the matter, and I would understand if the province withdrew their financial support of the team.
Biased officials? Such thoughts will always exist, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were true to an extent. Again, I understand Lee Jae-myeong’s and Hong Joon-pyo’s likely frustration, but I do think it was irresponsible of them to make blanket claims with little real evidence. Granted the penalty against Seongnam vs Ulsan was soft, but I don’t think there was anything wrong with the one given against them vs Busan. They are people of influence, in powerful positions, and so I think they must bear some degree of control when it comes to things like match official neutrality.
I suppose if I’m to try and come to some simple ending it would be this. In an ideal world the two would be separate, but because of the ownership system it is not possible. The solution? Education. Politicians and local governments must learn what the costs (and potential costs) are that come with having a professional football club. They must then make decisions about whether they are willing to bear those costs into the future. Football administrators and those in power positions must learn about dealing with non-football politicians, and the risks that come with having them in the system. It is not an easy solution nor is it a quick one, but it is one that must be done in order to better ensure the health and continuation of the K League.