The K-League is set to kick off its 30th season this weekend, with reigning champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors taking on Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in Jeonju on Saturday. Whether the Motors will be able to defend their title after the departure of coach Choi Kang-Hee remains a matter of debate, while there is another fundamental question for the first time in the history of the South Korean championship. Who will be the first teams to be relegated after the scheduled 352 games are contested?
With the league administration planning to introduce a full division system by the 2014 season, a couple of major changes will be implemented this year. The K-League Cup tournament and the Championship Series play-offs have been abolished with the introduction of ‘the split system’, in which the 16 participating clubs will be divided into two groups of eight teams according to the results after 30 rounds in August.
From September to December, the eight teams in the upper group will compete with each other to win the championship, while the other eight will have to fight for their survival. The two bottom clubs are to be relegated to the second division at the end of the year, with another two to undergo a similar process the following season.
The league had initially considered the idea of relegating four clubs this season, but after the representatives of six clubs protested against the provisional decision in December, only two will have to face the dreaded drop. The clubs in question are Daejeon Citizen, Incheon United, Daegu, Gyeongnam, Gangwon and Gwangju, all of whom are owned by local cities or provinces and therefore relatively less independent than corporate clubs in financial terms.
Since semi-pro club Hallelujah won the inaugural championship in 1983, silverware has proved elusive for those weaker teams with only Daejeon lifting the Korean FA Cup in 2001, before Incheon finishing runners-up in the 2005 K-League. If there has not been enough time and money for the so-called citizen clubs to invest in order to become serious contenders for the titles, they may suddenly find themselves under the threat of unthinkable elimination.
There are other problems as well. The division system consists of relegation and promotion, but only the former seems to be in focus at the moment. In fact, this is not the first time that the league tried to adopt the idea of running two professional divisions. According to its original blueprint, the winners of the National League – the second tier of Korea Republic’s professional football – were supposed to be promoted to the K-League from the 2007 season, but Goyang Kookmin Bank, and then Ulsan Mipo the following year, refused to join the first division for financial reasons.
So from now on, the K-League will have to put the priority on encouraging the minnows to join the first division with reasonable rewards, while also working closely with the second division so the proposed plan can be implemented smoothly over the course of the seasons to come.
New faces boost old faithfuls
Meanwhile, it is business as usual for traditional powerhouses as they seek to continue their dominance on the domestic football scene. Jeonbuk’s attacking football is again likely to be on show, as the Motors have added Korea Republic midfielder Kim Jung-Woo, as well as Chile international Hugo Droguett to an already formidable squad. Suwon Samsung Bluewings also spent plenty during the winter, acquiring strikers Dzenan Radoncic and Cho Dong-Gun from Seongnam while signing winger Seo Jung-Jin from Jeonbuk.
Last year’s runners-up Ulsan Hyundai Horangi brought in Lee Keun-Ho and Kim Seung-Yong to strengthen their flanks, with Japanese international Akihiro Ienaga arriving at Munsu on loan from Mallorca. Seongnam also reinforced their midfield by securing the services of Korea Republic starlets Yoon Bitgaram and Han Sang-Wun.
Despite the contrasting attitudes to prepare for the radical changes this season, the 16 participants of the K-League, regardless of being rich or poor, will at least have one goal in common - to finish in the upper group in order to avoid the dim possibility of relegation.