Saturday, September 29, 2007

Full Moon Spells Quarter Doom For Jeonbuk

Full moon over Jeonju World Cup Stadium

The Korean thanksgiving holiday is a time to spend with family and pay respects to ancestors that have passed away. What it is not, is a time to do any unnecessary travel. More than half the nation moves around the southern half of the peninsula to visit hometowns. The nightly television news programs all start by broadcasting the same pictures with relish. The first is of the full harvest moon, an image followed by shots of expressways that are equally bloated.

Mounting journey times between major cities are gravely but breathlessly relayed to those lucky enough to be sat in their own homes. The barometer is Seoul-Busan. It usually takes around five hours to drive from the capital to the south coast port but during ‘Chuseok’, that will only get you about halfway.

That was the point that the Asian Champions quarter-final between Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Urawa Reds was at on the last day of the harvest festivities with the second leg action due to take place in Korea.

Urawa fans at Jeonju World Cup Stadium

A week previously in Saitama, the Japanese champions had given the Asian champions a footballing lesson. If the two-goal lead that the Reds enjoyed for much of the game had been carried over the East Sea and into South Korea for the second leg, Urawa coach Holger Osieck would have been delighted though perhaps a little disappointed that the J-League leaders hadn’t managed more. As it was, Jeonbuk’s veteran defender Choi Jin-cheul popped up at the last minute to give the visitors a vital away goal and a good deal of hope.

Jeonbuk Motors fans

The smart money was still on Urawa to progress but only just. Jeonbuk had shown while winning the competition a year before that what they sometimes lack in finesse, they make up with passion, power and a never-say-die spirit. Such play doesn’t always make a difference in the K-league that has an abundance of those qualities. Going into the second leg, Jeonbuk may have been in fifth place in the league but were 17 points behind second and only five above Daejeon Citizen down in 11th.

Travelling down to the city of Jeonju, where Jeonbuk are based, from Seoul is always a pleasant journey but more so on the final day of the holidays. The number of people heading south-west was dwarfed by the millions scrambling back to the capital. There were enough Japanese fans making the same journey to give credence to reports suggesting that the home supporters could be similarly outnumbered. The sight of an army of red-clad fans tumbling off buses at expressway rest areas to swamp restaurants and convenience stores, but strangely not the kiosks that blast out sixties and seventies Korean music, was reminiscent of past away days in England.

On the way to jeonju

Their destination was North Jeolla Province in the south-west region of South Korea. It is a beautiful place - full of mountains, deep valleys, lush fields and, if you believe those who hail from the south-east of the country, people who can’t be trusted as far as they can be thrown. It is a stereotype that is hard to believe as folk that hail from Jeolla are as friendly as their version of the national dish, kimchi, is salty.

Jeonju is the capital of the region and while it may be the home of the Asian champions, it is better known for food not football. The city of 600,000 is the birthplace of the famous Korean dish Bi Bim Bap, a bowl of mixed vegetables, rice and spicy pepper sauce that tastes considerably better than that description suggests.

Urawa fans

The Urawa coach wasn't planning to treat his team to a dish of the local specialty; he expected that his players would be served up a generous helping of ‘bim’ and ‘bap’ on the field. Prior to the game he warned the starting eleven that they could expect to get kicked around the pitch at the 44,000 capacity Jeonju World Cup Stadium, an arena that is both large and intimate.

In truth, he wasn’t wrong. Some of Jeonbuk’s tackles would have been x-rated stuff even in the laxer leagues of Europe. Around 20,000 Jeonbuk fans and the 5,000 away supporters created an excellent atmosphere and the Saudi Arabian referee looked increasingly out of his depth as the game progressed.

Jeonbuk players complain at the end

He didn’t help matters by choosing to send off Chung Kyung-ho, one of the nicest players in the K-League both to watch and to meet. The winger was harshly booked for dissent early on and then shown a second yellow for a dive midway through the first half. There were other players much more deserving of a place in referee’s book than the former international.

jeonbuk fans look depressed

Still, football is not always fair but the end result probably was and Urawa return to Korea for the semi-final, this time to face champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.The moon won’t be full but, for the mouth-watering clash between the holders of leagues J and K, the stadium will be.

Urawa players celebratew with fans

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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