Saturday, July 18, 2009
One Seoul, Two Uniteds
Asia is accustomed to hosting teams from Europe. Every summer sees big clubs from the west heading east to play exhibition games in attempts to win new fans and conquer new markets.
The likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Roma and Juventus have all paid visits to the world’s largest continent in recent years. After all, over half of the planet’s football fans call Asia home.
There is something slightly special happening this month however with two teams from Manchester visiting the Land of the Morning Calm. One is English champions, European Champions League runners-up, FIFA Club World Cup winners and all-round general behemoth, Manchester United.
The storied English team have won 18 domestic and three continental titles and is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, club in the world. It also boasts Korea’s favorite sporting star, male at least, Park Ji-sung.
United is in action on July 24 against K-League club FC Seoul at Seoul World Cup Stadium in a game that is a 64,000 sell-out. Chief Executive David Gill said: “Our tours to Asia are always special. The atmosphere generated by the supporters is amazing. The Club enjoys unrivalled support across the continent and it is great to give those fans the opportunity to see their heroes in action in their own country.”
Six days previously before that however, a team from England’s seventh tier is in action against one from Korea’s third division. FC United of Manchester faces Bucheon 1995. FC United was formed in 2005 by disillusioned fans of Manchester United. These followers acted after the club was taken over by American businessman Malcolm Glazer in 2005, another stage in what was, according to these supporters, the final straw in a move away from the club’s Manchester roots and fan-base.
FC United are run by the fans for the fans. Starting all the way down in England’s tenth tier, the club has climbed up to the seventh rung of the ladder and is regularly watched by 3,000 fans. Ahead of next season, the club announced on its website recently that each fan could choose what they paid for the season ticket that will grant entry into all home games.
The same home page could also hardly contain its excitement at the all-expenses-paid trip to Korea. “This is an amazing opportunity for FC United and we’re honored to be able to feature in a game against a fans-owned club with similar founding principles to our own,” it said.
Andy Walsh, general manager of the club, added his take at a very well-attended press conference at the swanky Seoul Plaza hotel.
"Our club, like yours, was founded when others who weren’t supporters of the club took it over," Walsh explained. "In our case, it was the Glazer family from America that came and bought the club. They were not supporters of Manchester United, they were there merely to make money from the supporters and the football club. Football is an important part of our lives as fans, players and coaches. It was important that we had a club we could support and it was affordable and we could watch every Saturday."
"The Glazers have been around for a very short period of time. They won’t be around much longer," Walsh warned. "When they leave, they will leave the club in debt. It will be left to those who care about the club to right those wrongs.
"We are extremely honoured that you recognised the similarities between our club and your club and invited us here."
There are similarities. Bucheon 1995 were also set up by fans whose club was literally taken away. SK Bucheon FC was a K-league team that had been struggling in the lower reaches for some years. Those fans woke up one morning in February 2006, a month before the start of the new season, to find that owners SK Energy, one arm of the giant SK conglomerate, had decided to move it, lock, stock and barrel to the southern island of Jeju. This new team, Jeju United, was to utilize the last of the vacant stadiums built for the 2002 World Cup. It hasn’t exactly been a successful move and the island incantation of the team has fared little better in terms of points collected and fans attracted.
But the fans left behind channeled their anger into setting up their own club. It wasn’t an easy process but it has been handled skillfully and professionally. The club is in Korea’s K-3 League, unsurprisingly, the third tier, and has sponsorship deals and media exposure that most of its rivals can only dream of with deals with giant media portal Daum as well as SK Telecom.
The match with FC United, which takes place at Bucheon Sports Complex Stadium on July 18, has caught the imagination. As of July 12, 15,000 tickets had been sold and between 20-25,000 are expected on the night.
At the very least, it will be a fun night for all involved and a great opportunity for lower league English players to play a match in East Asia and if it raises profiles as well as questions as to how the beautiful game operates in the respective countries, so much the better.
Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile
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