During my recent trip to South Korea, I was able to attend a K-League game between Gangwon FC and FC Seoul, two teams which have both been seeing recent success. The match was held in the Seoul World Cup Stadium, also known as Sangam Stadium. I thought I’d write about the overall experience and what to expect.
Before the Game
I took the Korean subway to get to the Stadium. The Korean subway system is generally very clean, easy to follow, and convenient, and the same applied in my trip to Sangam. As I got closer and closer to the stadium, FC Seoul jerseys were more and more visible. After getting off the subway, all I needed was a short walk to get to the entrance of the stadium.
The lower level of the main entrance of the stadium was occupied by food trucks and a mini soccer field. This area was relatively crowded, and the most popular food trucks had fairly long lines. Other food truck lines were not long at all, and my family opted to give up the best stadium food in exchange for a short wait. We bought 떡볶이 (spicy rice cake) and 순대 (Korean sausage), and although it was not particularly fitting for a scorching hot summer night, it tasted great.
There appeared to be a children’s soccer game going on in the mini soccer field, although I did not see exactly what was going on. This entire lower level faced the majestic stadium, which was elevated by a long staircase.
Based on the location of the seat, spectators enter the stadium in different gates. Signs throughout the stadium showed how to get to all of the gates, and after a short walk, I was into the stadium.
Home Team Energy
My seats were on the long edge of the field, on the side of the dugouts. The short sides of the stands were occupied by each side’s loyal fanbase. My seats were closer to the Gangwon fanbase, and almost directly behind the Gangwon dugout.
Tickets were CHEAP, sold only at about the US equivalent of $20 dollars. For its value, the view of the field was amazing, and probably could not be offered in most other soccer stadiums. I felt extremely close to the field, almost as though I was actually part of the game. Throughout the game, I was awed by how previous national team stars like Park Chuyoung, Yun Sukyoung, and Han Kookyoung seemed almost directly in front of me.
By game time, the stadium was about 40% full. As you can see above, the highest decks had very limited amounts of spectators. Although it would’ve been nicer to see a packed stadium, the overall atmosphere and energy of the stadium was vibrant nevertheless.
To welcome the players, a group of cheerleaders came onto the pitch and waved flags. At that point, fans were instructed to hold up their red balloons and shake them as well. This created a drumroll-like noise as the players walked onto the pitch.
Overall, the Seoul fans were very active. Although I couldn’t experience the fire of the official fan section, three quarters of the pitch were surrounded by mostly Seoul fans. Fireworks, chants, and loudspeaker announcements encouraging cheering for specific players after they made great plays kept people focused on the game.
The “vuvuzela”, or the controversial horn greatly disliked during the 2010 World Cup, was encouraged to be used throughout the stadium whenever Gangwon had a set-piece or dangerous position. To be sure, they were annoying, but that seemed to be the entire purpose of them, and not enough people had them to make the noise unbearable.
Gangwon fans- less is more
The Gangwon fans were far outnumbered by the Seoul fans. At times, the fanbase looked meager, especially when Gangwon gave up the first goal of the match. However, props to Gangwon fans for holding their ground throughout the match. When Gangwon made a comeback to lead 2-1 in the second half, the Seoul fans were silenced by a Gangwon fanbase which occupied only one side of the pitch. At that moment, it seemed as though the number of Gangwon fans doubled the amount of Seoul fans. Every time Gangwon scored, their players would rush to their fans, and they would cheer even louder. It was awesome to watch. Sometimes, less is more.
The relatively new component of VAR played a crucial role in the match- its presence could be felt heavily. On three separate occasions, the referee went to the sidelines to check VAR. These occasions were high pressure, as one even resulted in a cancelled goal and prevented Gangwon from gaining a 3-1 lead. On all three occasions, the stadium decreased in volume as the referee went to review the play, creating a tense setting where everyone was focused on the call.
Sangam Stadium did a good job of creating an eventful halftime that would not be boring. Of course, many people briefly exited to use the bathroom, buy more food, etc. However, many other people like me went closer to the field to take pictures, and it was then that I had the opportunity to see the field and substitute players closer. Lee Jaeik, starting centerback in the U20 World Cup, made a guest appearance in the stands (he was on the reserves list for Gangwon FC that day), and took pictures and signed autographs for fans in his proximity. There was also some sort of DJ concert on the other side of the stadium, although I’m not sure how engaging the performance was.
If there’s one thing I think that Sangam could be better at, it’s providing more information about the game. After the referees checked VAR, they gave some sort of signal, but most fans cannot see the decision right away. Many fans in my area were confused as to what the official decision was. The stadium had an awesome loudspeaker system they used to introduce players- they could use it to announce all the VAR decisions.
My second complaint is relatively niche, and kind of related. I got to the stadium a few minutes before kickoff, but didn’t have time to check the lineups. I looked around for a sign presenting the lineups for each side, but they weren’t shown until after the start of the game. Furthermore, as I tried to remember the substitutions each coach made to try to understand their gameplan, I found that the stadium did not show exactly who was subbed out for who. These are little things the stadium could do to bring a greater sense of awareness for the fans.
Gangwon FC or Gwangyeon FC?
Sitting in the side of the Gangwon dugout, the popularity of U20 hero goalkeeper Lee Gwangyeon was clear. Lee Gwangyeon was on the bench the entire game, but his presence could be felt more than any other Gangwon player. Every time the Gangwon substitutes would head to the warm-up area, every fan, regardless of what team they were rooting for, would stop watching the game to cheer for Lee Gwangyeon. After the game, Lee Gwangyeon stayed longer than any other player to sign autographs for fans.
Go Yo Han
One-club man Go Yo Han was the clear fan favorite of FC Seoul. Go Yo Han jerseys were the most prevalent jersey throughout the stadium, and when Go was subbed out of the game in the second half, the applause for him was far louder than any of his teammates. In my opinion, he was the best Seoul player in that game, too. He showed flashy dribbles that excited the Seoul fans, and he was present in every aspect of the game, from helping the defense to leading a buildup to being in the penalty box.
Kim Byung Soo
While FC Seoul coach Choi Yong Soo seemed relatively nonchalant and reserved throughout the match, Gangwon’s coach Kim Byung Soo was awesome to watch. He was constantly communicating with his players, unfolding the buildup with many instructions. He was very energetic, and his frustrations at the end of the game could be seen in this video.
I must say, Gangwon FC was an awesome side to watch. I was originally disappointed I wasn’t watching powerhouses such as Jeonbuk or Ulsan, but I later found myself rooting for an unfamiliar away side. 2014 World Cup starter Han Kook Young controlled the buildup and resembled Ki Seungyeung, and Jung Jo Gook was such a charismatic presence who could both make dangerous passes and create his own shots. I was furthermore impressed by winger Jo Jae Wan. I had never heard of the player before, but his pace created havoc, and Seoul fans around me could not stop talking about how dangerous this player is. Gangwon FC was an energetic side that was much more fun to watch compared to a relatively flat Seoul FC, who was just lucky to pull away with the draw.
Overall, the K League game was an extremely fun experience I highly recommend to soccer fans visiting Korea. Yes, the game had its dry moments, and it’s no EPL or World Cup match, but for its price, it offers an awesome experience.