Friday, December 15, 2006

Promotion Problems

Promotion Problems.
It's been a sorry saga and one which few parties emerge from with any credit.

When the K-League announced earlier in the year that it was finally going to introduce promotion to South Korea’s football scene at the end of the 2006 season, it was greeted by most as a step in the right direction.

For teams in the second tier, the National League (N-League), that step was upwards into Asia's oldest professional league - the K-League.

For the people that run the game, promotion would strengthen the whole structure of football in Korea. A first-round exit at the 2006 World Cup provided greater weight to those voices that had stressed the need to improve the domestic set-up.

The theory went that with promotion, the base of the football structure would become stronger. The N-League would improve as teams became more professional in order to reach and then survive in the top flight.

Stage two of the plan stated that after four years of promotion, relegation would then kick-in. 2009/2010 would see a two-way system established, one that would flow from the K, now a league of 18 teams, to the N now a competitive second division and back again. In this revitalized N-League, relegated teams wouldn’t simply disappear into an amateurish abyss but would be able to regroup and aim to return from whence they came.

In short and in theory, it sounded reasonable and within the realms of possibility. In 2006, three or four N-League teams emerged from the pack. These clubs looked to be no worse than those which spent 2006 languishing around the bottom of the top flight.

The two candidates were narrowed down to Goyang Kookmin Bank and Gimpo Hallelujah. Both of these Gyeonggi Province clubs had been founder members of the K-League back in 1983 but were now battling to taste life in the big time once more.

They met in a promotion play-off with Goyang squeezing past their Christian opponents. It was a cold Sunday afternoon when the yellow-shirted players danced with the trophy in front of their supporters. Those fans had draped banners around the 42,000 capacity stadium which carried messages such as “We’ll be back” and “K-League –Just Wait!”

After what happened since, the slogans now sound more like threats.

Not only did the K-League introduce promotion, the powers-that-be also added a few financial conditions for all aspiring N-League teams to meet before heading off up the ladder.

All K-League hopefuls have to pay an initial fee of over $2.25 million in order to take their place among the elite. Additionally, there are significant costs involved with the stadium and especially with improving the playing and coaching staff. The club’s owners Kookmin Bank estimated a bill approaching $10 million by the time the 2007 season kicked off.

Only the most unambitious, foolhardy or most confident of promoted clubs don’t buy new players for a new life in the top flight but it is unusual to pay general admission fees. Goyang's owners, Kookmin Bank, had misgivings about splashing the cash. A cursory look at the life in the K-League reveals the reasons why -any initial investments are unlikely to yield future returns.

There is no treasure chest to be found in the K-League; salaries are not low while attendances often are. It is a rare feat indeed for a top flight team to make money. It doesn’t take a banker to realize that paying a substantial amount of money to join an organization in which most members lose a good deal of cash is not a sound financial move.

The inevitable happened. After almost two weeks of “thinking” about the problem, on December 8, Goyang Kookmin Bank finally announced that the club would stay in the N-League. The bank cited a national law which prevents banks from running professional sports teams as the reason for the decision.

“Realistically we can’t operate a professional team because legally we can’t be involved be involved in business other than banking,” a spokesperson for the bank said in a statement.

The law exists but, according to those in the know, it was not an insurmountable obstacle. The general consensus is that Kookmin Bank didn’t want to meet the financial costs of promotion and have never had much intention of doing so. The decision, which could have been made before the club successfully achieved promotion, was not well-received.

“This is not news,” sniffed a source at the Korean Football Association.

“Kookmin Bank said before that they would solve the problem if they got promoted. This is an excuse and makes fools of football fans.”

In truth, everyone comes out of the situation looking a little foolish. The bank does so for fighting to achieve promotion while having little intention of joining the top division, the K-League for imposing stringent and senseless financial conditions and the fans who believed that those who run and play the game are capable of doing so competently.

As a result, Goyang will stay in the second tier, the 2007 K-League will start with 14 instead of 15 teams and unless the football authorities reconsider some of their stranger decisions, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the same drama played out again in the future.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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