Islands are the best tourist destinations in many countries. People generally flock to them in search of ocean, warm sun, and the abundance of seafood. But islands are rarely associated with great sport. In that aspect, Jeju Island, the most popular tourist destination in Korea, stands alone. The island is home to the most exciting football team in Korea, a team vying for the national title this season. But despite the team’s success, hardly anyone—tourist or resident—will come to its matches.
The only professional sports team on Jeju Island
Many European teams are based on islands in the Mediterranean: Palermo in Sicilia (Italy), Cagliari in Sardegna (Italy), Mallorca in Mallorca (Spain), Bastia in Corsica (France), and others. Each team has shared a similar fate. Because they were unable to meet up with other teams via land routes, they were slow to join the national leagues. Planes have made it possible for them to participate in away games, but they remain isolated. Only a limited fraction of the local population can be become fans, and those that do have to travel far for away matches. Because of these limitations, prestigious teams based on islands are few and far between. Island teams tend to swing between the first and second divisions, occasionally finishing fourth or fifth in the top division, qualifying for international competitions, but ending up in danger of relegation back to a lower division. Jeju United has walked a somewhat similar path.
Jeju Island is a unique spot in South Korea. It’s the nation’s largest island and is administratively independent, with a population of 650,000. It formed as the result of a volcanic eruption and you have a view of Halla Mountain, its central point, from anywhere on the island. Old buildings and walls are black, built with basalt. The elderly speak a dialect that sounds completely foreign to the rest of the country. Its mountain, coast, and distinctive culture and food are hugely popular with both Korean nationals and visitors from elsewhere in East Asia and the island is becoming densely populated with luxury restaurants and cafes.
Because of the issue of transportation, there were no professional sports teams on Jeju until the 2000s. There was always potential for sports interest, though, with tens of thousands flocking to high school football games. A football stadium was established for the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup and Bucheon SK, of Bucheon near Seoul, took the stadium as its home in 2006. In relocating to Jeju Island, it changed its name to Jeju United.
The first year after the move, Jeju United finished bottom of the league. In 2009, the team suffered a 8-1 defeat against Pohang Steelers, setting a record for heaviest loss in a K League game. But starting in 2010, Jeju United underwent a complete transformation.
That year, Jeju United appointed the relatively inexperienced Park Kyung-hoon as manager. Park changed the team into the most technical and quickest in Korea, with United finishing a close second in the league. It was similar to how Arsene Wenger had changed Arsenal into the best looking team in England. The team revitalized players who had failed in other teams and developed younger talents. Koo Ja-cheol and Hong Jeong-ho, both 21 in 2010, grew into top Korean football players, later playing in the Bundesliga.
With its identity decided, performances improved dramatically and Jeju United consistently finished in the top third of the table. But Jeju was far from winning a title. They were plagued by similar limitations to those of island teams in the Mediterranean. Other teams only have to travel twice to Jeju for away games, but United have to leave the island (at the southernmost point of Korea) every two weeks by complicated transportation routes. For instance, to play a game with Gangwon FC, which is based in the northeast of the country, the team can fly from Jeju to Wonju. But there are only one or two flights between these airports each day. United therefore often spend whole days in transit before and after games. The team thought about purchasing a private jet but it didn’t work out in the end.
The most talented team in Korea
Kim Jae-sung, who played in the 2010 World Cup as a member of the South Korean national team, was a member of Jeju United in 2006, the year the team moved to the island. He played for United once more in 2016. And he returned this year to play against Jeju as a member of an Australian team, Adelaide United. Kim said, “The players in 2006 felt like they’d been exiled. The group had to receive psychiatric therapy. Now Jeju United is settled and experienced enough to lend its training field to Adelaide. It’s improved dramatically in every way.”
Jeju United has developed into a team that last year vied for first place. In 2014, Jo Sung-hwan took over from Park Kyung-hoon and turned the team into a more combative one while maintaining the same playing style. Some players were frustrated about having to live in Seogwipo, and Jo would sometimes take three or four out for lunch to build unity. Growing stronger, Jeju United placed third in the K League Classic last year. This earned them a place in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League.
Noticing Jeju United’s high chances of winning, SK has invested a huge amount in the team. Jeju’s current squad is the strongest in K League, second only to Jeonbuk Hyundai. The team is also full of distinct characters: Ahn Hyun-Bum, the best player at cutting through sides, Kwon Soon-hyung, the best at mid-range shots, and Hwang Il-su, the fastest player in the K League. Lee Chang-min, a versatile player reminiscent of Luka Modric, and Cho Yong-hyung, the most experienced defender in the team who can make 50-meter passes, make Jeju United a more intelligent and technically competent team. The team also excels in discovering Brazilian players who aren’t very well known in Brazil but go on to excel in East Asia. This Brazilian creativity is another element contributing to the spectacle of Jeju United games.
This year, Jeju has taken up the challenge of all three competitions: the K League Classic, the Asian Champions League, and the Korean FA Cup. Jo Sung-hwan publicly announced that the goal is the “treble”. The team is currently leading the K League Classic and is still alive in the Asian Champions League and the FA Cup. And they continue to play entertaining football, with the highest goal tally in the league.
‘The other teams are struggling. Here’s our chance’
The reason Jeju is able to compete for the title, unlike Mallorca or Palermo, is because of the unique situation the K League is in right now. Previous title winners are currently having difficulties. Jeju exposed those new weaknesses by finishing third last year. And in doing so, it has managed to elicit more support from SK.
The recent titleholders are Jeonbuk Hyundai, FC Seoul and Pohang Steelers. Two others who came close were Suwon Samsung, the most popular team in the league, and Ulsan Hyundai , which has performed exceptionally in the Asian Champions League.
With the exception of Jeonbuk, all of these teams are weaker than they once were. The K League enjoyed massive popularity in the 1990s and the early 2000s. But people then began to lose interest in the national league as the popularity of baseball soared and outstanding Korean players transferred to overseas teams. In 2013, the league revealed the total player salaries for each club in an attempt to improve transparency and prevent lax management. But in reality that decision only made things worse. All the teams suffered under the pressure of their parent companies, which lowered salaries in response to what they saw as underperformance. Suwon in particular weakened more quickly than others, finishing seventh out of 12 teams in 2016 and ranking fifth at present.
While the K League isn’t very popular compared to other leagues in Asia, it is arguably the best. The proof is in the Asian Champions League. For five consecutive years from 2009 to 2013, a Korean team made it to the final, with Pohang, Seongnam Ilhwa and Ulsan each winning the title. Jeonbuk were champions last year. Football teams in Japan, which has a well organized league, and China, which recruited players such as Hulk and Ramires by pouring money in, have all been weaker than K League clubs.
Yet as of this year, Korean teams can no longer be said to be the best in Asia. It was recently discovered that Jeonbuk bribed a referee four years ago, disqualifying the team from participating in this year’s Champions League. Of the four participating teams, Ulsan, Seoul, and Suwon were eliminated in the group stage. Jeju was the only Korean team to make it to the knockout stage. Compared to China and Japan—which each had three teams move up to the knockout phase—Korea has done poorly this year. Jeju is the only hope.
While the other teams were competing to lower the players’ salaries, Jeonbuk and Jeju thought differently: if all the companies were decreasing the amount of money spent on football teams, any that increased the expenses a little bit would achieve better results. Every winter (transfers in K League take place in the winter, and games are held from the spring to autumn months), Jeonbuk succeeded in forming an exceptional team. Likewise, Jeju has worked hard on player recruitment over the past two years, monopolizing talented players who will be the future of Korean football.
Jeju has used the unique circumstances of the Korean football league to its advantage. The team is exciting to watch too. While Jeonbuk is one that strives to win at all costs (it is often likened to Manchester United under Alex Ferguson), Jeju plays with more style.
But almost no Jeju resident knows when Jeju United’s games are or who they are playing. Jeju matches are attended by 5,000 at best and barely 2,000 at worst. It is true that K League attendance is down for other clubs too, but this is way too low for a team that competes for the title. “There is a limit to a football team based in Seogwipo,” said Jang Seok-soo, the CEO of Jeju United, with a bitter smile. It was a critical mistake to choose Seogwipo over the city of Jeju, which has a bigger population, when the stadium began construction in 1999. Jeju Island is divided into two regions: Jeju in the north and Seogwipo in the south. Jeju has a population of about 470,000. Seogwipo has about 180,000 residents and only about half of them live in the city of Seogwipo itself—far too small a base for a professional sports team looking to draw in fans. And the label of “traitor” the team received for changing its home adds to these difficulties.
The only problem is the empty stadium
Jeju strove to attract spectators through a host of interesting ideas. As Park Kyung-hoon sported white hair, the team promised to dye his hair orange, the color of the team’s uniform, if more than 20,000 spectators attended a game. Park was unable to keep this promise during his tenure, but he returned when the target was met in 2015, dyed his hair orange, and took a picture with Jo Sung-hwan. The team also sent their best-looking players to local events to increase their fan base. And such efforts have earned them their current number of fans. It was difficult to get even 1,000 people together for a game for low-interest matches, but they now draw at least 2,000.
I asked the club to “introduce Jeju United to foreigners”. The promotion team said that “Jeju United’s home stadium is considered the ‘most beautiful stadium in the world’. You can get a view of the ocean and Halla Mountain at the same time. Barcelona-esque football in a setting like this is a spectacle that only Jeju Island can offer.” When I asked them via Kakao Talk how many foreign tourists come to matches, the team didn’t give me a straight answer. They just said, “We don’t even have that many local residents at games.” The low crowd numbers are this team’s only flaw.
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