If there was a shrine for football fans in Korea, it would be the piers of Incheon, where the modern game was first introduced by the crew of British warship HMS Flying Fish in 1882. Yet despite its undisputed status as the birthplace of Korean football, the west coast city had to wait well over a century for the beautiful game's arrival to be followed by the establishment of a professional club.
It was as recently as 2003, in fact, that Incheon United became the 13th member of the K-League thanks to some 47,000 local shareholders, who were willing to put their own money towards providing a focal point of pride for their hometown. It was the third experiment of its kind, following the establishments of Daejeon Citizen and Daegu FC in 1997 and 2002 respectively. However, just as the so-called 'citizen clubs' did in their first years, Incheon's top flight debut in 2004 was a baptism of fire as they struggled throughout the season and finished second from bottom.
This was no surprise. Although the league adopted the franchise system in 1996 to encourage clubs to strengthen their bonds with their local communities, the big clubs owned and run by conglomerates have dominated the domestic scene.
It was a shock, therefore, that Incheon stormed into the K-League championship series by topping the table in 2005. Although they lost 6-3 on aggregate at the hands of Ulsan Hyundai Horangi in what was rightly described as 'David vs Goliath' match-up, United's average attendance of 24,353 at their Munhak Stadium made them the season's biggest success story.
Chang Woe-Ryong, who masterminded Incheon's fairy tale run, was subsequently voted the Coach of the Year and could well be find himself on another podium for an altogether different kind of awards ceremony. That is because Chang starred as himself in a documentary called 'Soar', which remains the biggest hit of its genre in Korea and is credited with inspiring the birth of Gyeongnam FC, another citizen club in the Southeastern city of Changwon in 2006.
Although they could not build on this remarkable leaue success the following season, United still finished third in the Korean FA Cup. Perhaps more importantly, the Incheon club recorded a profit for the fiscal year of 2006 - 500 million wons (approximately USD 0.5 million) - a small but nevertheless historic achievement in the professional game. These profits almost doubled last year and the club's CEO Ahn Jong-Bok recently revealed a bold blueprint for the future.
"We couldn't have achieved this without the support from 2.7 million citizens including the shareholders of United," said the 55-year-old. "Our next goal is to file for an initial public offering in the KOSDAQ market by the end of 2009, which will be another turning point in the history of Korean football."
Ahn, who identified talented players such as Kim Joo-Sung and Ahn Jung-Hwan during his tenure at Busan Daewoo Royals in the 1990s, also admitted that he has been benchmarking Incheon's business model against that of Ajax Amsterdam. "With the launch of our U-18 side at a local high school this year, we will have a complete setup of youth academy as we already boast U-12 and U-15 teams," he said. "We hope to find young hopefuls here and raise them into franchise players."
If all goes as planned, Incheon's new crop of homegrown starlets will beginning to force their way into the first team picture just in time to play in a brand new arena in the city's Sungui district, where United are hoping to kick off their campaign in 2010. Regardless, these are undeniably exciting times for this club of the people.