Sunday, August 26, 2007

Boycotts, Busan and Betrayal

It’s hard to get excited about any Olympic qualifier and a home game against Uzbekistan certainly wasn’t one to send pulses racing just south of the 38th Parallel. South Korea had already defeated the Central Asians in the second round of qualifying in March then went on to complete the double in Tashkent in April. If that wasn’t enough, the senior teams met in Seoul for a pre-Asian Cup friendly in July with another victory for the hosts.

At the end of a hard-fought game, Korea made it four wins out of four to get off to a winning start in the final round of qualifying and with the rest of Group B comprising of Bahrain and Syria, Beijing is becoming ever more visible just across the murky Yellow Sea.

The game was notable as it was Park Song-hwa’s first game as coach. Park has been involved with various national team set-ups over the years and after Andy Egli resigned as Busan I’Park boss at the beginning of July, Park moved into the hotseat on the south coast. It was a welcome move for the fans of the one-time giants of Korean and Asian football. Park has a decent reputation as a coach and those who know him speak of his open mind and a willingness to listen to others, not always abundant qualities among K-League coaches.

Fifteen days later he was gone, his smile beaming out of the front page of every sports daily in Seoul as he became the Olympic coach. Busan fans were less happy, speechless at the sight of the Korean FA poaching their coach of just one game.
Languishing near the bottom of the K-League, the departure was as one fan said "a kick in the teeth."

Despite a preference for baseball over football, there is still huge potential in the city of five million. The glory days are long gone however. It is ten years since Busan won the last of its four titles and the Asian championship came more than two decades ago in 1986.

The club provides its foreign coaches, Ian Porterfield a recent example, with great accommodation located in the swanky hills above Haeundae Beach on the eastern outskirts of the city. There were a couple of genuinely big European names interested in the job before Park was appointed though one of them has since found alternative employment in Europe. It is unlikely however that Busan has the money. The company behind the club, I-Park, pumps concrete on a daily basis as it constructs apartments up and down the peninsula but is less keen to pump money into the club’s coffers.

Good players have come but have often been allowed to leave. Ahn Jung-hwan, Song Chong-guk and Sasa Drakulic all sported the red and white and more recently Popo, one of the best foreigners in the K-League, was allowed to sign for nearby Gyeongnam. With the help of seven goals and nine assists from the Brazilian, Gyeongnam, who entered the league 23 years after Busan, are now nine places above I'Park.

Also higher are the attendances of almost every other club. The move to the 55,000 World Cup Stadium has not been blessed. The veruca-shaped bowl may look good but it lies far north of the city centre and is hard to fill. Worse, it is getting emptier by the year and these days crowd figures rarely cross the five-figure threshold.

Park may not have changed any of that but now we will never know. It has been left to assistant Kim Pan-gon to step forward as caretaker for the third time while Park made the journey north to the capital.

The Red Devils, the famed national team supporters group, called for a boycott of Park’s first game and made a number of demands. These included such requests as an official apology to Busan, the resignation of the KFA’s technical committee and a new plan for the future of the K-League. It remains to be seen how successful they are but the boycott wasn’t completely effective. Although the flags and drums were absent, there did seem to be a healthy number of red-shirted fans in the usual devils’ den and while it took a little longer than usual, the singing started early in the first half and didn’t stop.

A few Busan fans let their feelings known and unfurled a banner that read ‘Clueless KFA, deceitful Park Sung-hwa.’ As you can see in the link below, even though the game was about to finish, the authorities moved quickly to remove the offending article from the battle-hardened hooligans obviously intent on wreaking havoc.

De-bannering Busan fans

It is not a good time to be a Busan fan.

Copyright: John Duerden and Soccerphile

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