Sweet sixteen for K-League
© AFP

The 2011 K-League season will get underway this weekend with a host of mouth-watering match-ups to kick-start the 29th edition of Korea Republic’s national competition. Reigning champions FC Seoul begin their title defence against arch-rivals and Korean FA Cup holders Suwon Bluewings at home, while current Asian champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma travel to 2009 winners Pohang Steelers.

The new season will also see an increase to 16 teams with Gwangju FC the latest member of the South Korean top-flight. With the establishment of the new club in the City of Lights, military club Sangmu Phoenix have moved its home from Gwangju to Sangju.

And the addition of Gwangju is also expected to work as a stepping stone towards the introduction of promotion and relegation between the K-League and the National League, the second tier of Korean football, which is proposed for the 2013 season. For the time being, however, the priority for the 16 participating clubs this season is to be in the top-six play-offs at the end of the regular season for a shot at the championship.

Redemption time for big guns
If last year was full of surprises and upsets, with underdogs Jeju United and Gyeongnam FC making waves, this one is likely to be a good opportunity for traditional powerhouses to redeem themselves.

Suwon, for instance, spent heavily on recruiting big names during the winter, after suffering their worst season last year. Korea Republic first-choice goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong and forward Choi Sung-Kuk joined the Bluewings from Seongnam, along with right-back Oh Beom-Seok and central midfielder Oh Jang-Eun from Ulsan Horangi. In addition, colossal central-defender Mato Neretljak is back at the Big Bird stadium after a brief spell in Japan, while just last week Uzbekistan striker Alexander Geynrikh arrived in Suwon on loan from Pakhtakor.

“We’ve got quite a different squad from the one of last year but we’re not worried about it,” said Suwon coach Yoon Sung-Hyo. “If we reach the championship final this year, I’d like to meet Seoul as our opponents there. They’re on a 18-match winning streak at home, which is a tie with our record, but it won’t be easy to surpass the milestone.”

Despite Suwon’s recruitment, it is the city of Ulsan that has seen the arrival of the most South Korean internationals. Defenders Kwak Tae-Hwi, Kang Min-Soo and Song Chong-Gug joined Ulsan Hyundai Horangi, as have midfielder Lee Ho and forward Seol Ki-Hyeon.

Their local rivals Pohang, who lost Seol to Ulsan last month, did not acquire as many new faces but signed former Ghana forward Derek Asamoah and Brazilian striker Chuva to form a three-prolonged attack alongside Mota. “It’s my biggest headache to create the synergy between the trio,” said coach Hwang Sun-Hong, who had just returned from Busan I’Park to take the reins of his former club. “I always stress the importance of mingling with each other so they can become good partners on the pitch.”

I’d love to see them (my new players) score because I was a striker myself while I was playing. What I’m afraid of is that our opponents would approach us too cautiously and defensively.
Newly appointed coach of FC Seoul, Hwangbo Kwan

For their part, defending champions Seoul secured the services of another Uzbek international in Server Djeparov to complete a formidable contingent of foreigners: Macedonian forward Dejan Damjanovic, Colombian winger Mauricio Molina (from Seongnam) and Brazilian defender Adilson.

Seoul’s newly appointed coach Hwangbo Kwan, who famously scored a stunning goal for Korea Republic at the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ in Italy, promised that his side would stick to attacking football. “We have four foreign players who have already proved their abilities last season, so I expect them to play an important role again this time around,” he said. “I’d love to see them score because I was a striker myself while I was playing. What I’m afraid of is that our opponents would approach us too cautiously and defensively.”

Regardless of the outcome, the clash between Seoul and Suwon has invariably brought about a war of words down the years. This weekend's edition of the Capital Derby – between the clubs from the country’s capital and the so-called football capital - promises to be another classic to open up the biggest ever season in the history of the K-League.