Monday, April 6, 2009

South-West On The Rise In Korea

South-West On The Rise In Korea.
Jeonju is not all Bibimbap and pretty temples; it is also the home of the K-League pacesetters Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. The team from the south-west hasn’t made a huge impression on past title chases but after four games of the season, the Motors, are, well, motoring and with Gwangju fans enjoying the sight of their team sitting in second, it is a good time to be a football fan in the region.

That is especially true if you are one of the Mad Green Boys, a fan of Jeonbuk. Three wins and one draw may just be a good start and nothing more but it could also signal the start of a serious tilt at taking the golden K-League trophy to Jeolla Province for the first time.

Dwellers in the fertile fields and compact cities of the region have long complained of being neglected by governments of the past compared to its southeastern rival, and home of a many a president, Gyeongsang Province.

Here is not the place to enter into that debate but there is little doubt that as far as soccer goes, the region certainly is under-developed. None of the three teams that call Jeolla home have enjoyed league success – though Jeonbuk famously lifted the Asian Champions League trophy back in 2006.

This shift of gears from the Motors isn't totally unexpected. The club endured a pretty poor first half of 2008 and was, with its near neighbors, scrabbling around near the bottom of the league. A fine return to form in the latter period was just enough for them to squeeze into the play-offs of the final day of the season.
So when the club made some smart signings in the off season, it became that most mysterious of creatures – a dark horse.

Cho Jae-jin joined Asian champions Gamba Osaka in a big money deal but the powerful striker always seemed more settled in, and suited to, Japan. To replace the Little Emperor, coach Choi Kang-hee turned to the Lion King. The introduction of Lee Dong-guk would have caused pulses to race much faster three years ago but it was still an interesting move and the striker has much to prove.

Last weekend though it was The Prince who took the headlines. Choi Tae-uk grabbed three goals as Jeonbuk thrashed seven-time champions Seongnam Ilhwa 4-1 on Saturday. It was the striker’s first professional hattrick and if he is able to fulfill the promised he showed when he was younger then a return to the national team may not be too far away.

Ha Dae-sung looked good last season for Daegu and was snapped up and former international Kim Sang-sik still has some good years ahead of him and joined from Seongnam to add some stability to the back. He seems to have done that and more but the Motors are playing it cool.

“We are not getting carried away,” said boss Choi. “Things can change in football very quickly but of course, we are pleased with the great start to the season. The challenge for us is to maintain our winning form and continue getting results.”

Further south, Gwangju, the biggest city of the region, plays home to the league’s military team in which conscripted players complete their tour of duty.

Unsurprisingly, Gwangju Sangmu struggles almost every season as half the team leaves and another half is drafted in. 2009 has pretty good so far however.

A win against title favorites FC Seoul was followed by a come-from-behind 3-2 victory at Busan I’Park, the club’s firstaway win in 29 attempts. Little Maradona (you are nothing in Korean soccer without a grandiose nickname) Choi Sung-kuk has revitalized the club. The lofty position may not last but it makes a pleasant change for fans.

Chunnam Dragons completes the trio but perhaps the less said about the struggling Gwangyang club the better. Two points from the opening three matches, including a 6-1 thrashing from FC Seoul, have made for a struggling start.

On the whole however, southwest football looks to be on the rise and it will be very interesting to see if the region is still represented at the end.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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