Three decades since its launch in 1983, the K League is reaching another milestone this year with the Korea Republic top flight divided into two divisions from this season. The first division, named the K League Classic, will feature 14 clubs that survived last season while the second division, the K League, will see eight sides including the two relegated teams from last season vying for a chance to get promoted in December. A record 22 professional clubs are competing on two tiers this year.
For all these complications, the watchword for the recent changes is simply downsizing. The number of participating teams has grown from five in the inaugural season to ten in 1997 and then to 16 two years ago, when the league officials decided to introduce the split system from the 2012 season.
As the result, Sangju Sangmu and Gwangju FC were relegated from the first division last year after the two clubs finished on the bottom among the lower half group. The story will be more or less the same this season: The 14 participants will be split into two groups of seven according to the standings from the regular rounds in September, when the aims of the participating teams will be divided as well: to win the championship or to avoid relegation.
There is an added twist to the relegation battle this season though. While the bottom two sides will be automatically relegated, the 12th-placed team (i.e. the bottom third team of the lower half) will have to play-off against the champions of the K League for the right to stay in the top flight.
New rivalries burgeoning
Someone’s crisis is an opportunity for the other. The possibility of achieving promotion for the first time could work as a strong motivation for the K League teams, with FC Anyang and Bucheon FC making the headlines earlier this year. Both teams have something in common as their cities had long been vacated since their former franchises moved to Seoul in 2004 and Jeju in 2006 respectively.
Located on the south-western outskirts of Seoul, Anyang Cheetahs used to be the biggest rivals of neighbours Suwon Bluewings until 2003. Although Seoul and Suwon have been renowned for their fierce rivalry in recent years, the re-emergence of Anyang could add spice to the story of a ‘hatred triangle.’
Meanwhile, Jeju United, who were one of the founding members of the inaugural season as the National Oil Corporation’s Elephants FC, moved from Seoul to Bucheon in 1996 before settling down on the island ten years later. Newly established Bucheon FC joined the Challengers League, the third tier of Korean football, in 2008 and had been waiting for a chance to face the ones who left them.
Their wait was not to be long, however, as Bucheon turned professional to join the K League this year, and happened to set up their winter training camp on nowhere else than Jeju island in January. The practice game between Jeju and Bucheon turned out to be a hotly contested affair with hundreds of fans watching the hosts come from behind to edge the visitors 2-1.
It remains to be seen, of course, how long it will take for these rivalries to take place in the K League Classic, but at least those who witnessed something more than football that day will be eager for more classic stories in the seasons to come.