Saturday, October 30, 2010

K-League Profile: Ilhwa Chunma FC

As we wait about for Barca's match later today against Sevilla FC, perhaps we can use this time for Jedi Soccer to visit the K-League and profile their best club, as we have already done with the J-League Kashima Antlers.  When speaking about the dominant side in Korean football, the team to watch is Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma FC.  The story of this club is also the story of professional football in Korea.

First established in 1983 as the Korean Super League with only five clubs, in 1998 the Korean professional soccer league was reformed and renamed as the K-League, and has expanded to 15 teams.  The story of professional soccer in Korea has largely been about the migration of clubs from the urban centers into the provinces, in some cases coerced migration by the Korea Football Association (KFA).  The driving force behind this migration, and behind the growth of soccer in Korea, was the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was co-hosted by Japan and Korea.  During the bidding process for hosting the World Cup, the KFA recognized that for Korea to win the bid, it would be necessary to build soccer-specific stadiums nationwide, and for those stadiums to eventually host professional clubs.  Because until that time (the early 1990's) professional soccer in Korea had been largely confined to the major urban areas, the KFA embarked on a policy that may be called 'provincialization,' the systematic relocation of clubs out of the big urban areas and across the country.

The history of Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma FC reflects this policy.  Established in 1989 as Seoul Ilhwa Chunma FC, the team's badge has always been the flying stallion (chunma), a creature from Korean mythology.  From the start, this club has attracted some controversy, because it is owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.  In the heated religious atmosphere of contemporary Korea, this has been enough for Korean Christian Evangelicals to boycot the team.  Despite this, the club has been successful from its inception, winning supporters and championships in 1993, 1994, and 1995. 

In the midst of this winning streak, the KFA forcibly evicted the club from its facilities in Seoul, and forced it to relocate to Cheonan, becoming the Cheonan Ilhwa Chuma FC.  This forced relocation was followed by a few years near the bottom of the league standings, leading the club to relocate once more in 1999, this time voluntarily to the city of Seongnam.  Here, the club has prospered, winning four more leauge titles in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2006.  With seven league titles to its credit (as reflected by the 7 stars in the club's crest), Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma FC (or just Ilhwa Chunma to its fans), has established itself as the dominant team in Korean soccer.

Ilhwa Chunma has been succesful without as much reliance on foreign talent as some other Asian clubs, such as the Kashima Antlers in the J-League.  Although there has been foreign talent on the team, Ilhwa Chunma (and most Korean soccer clubs) have done a good job developing home-grown Korean talent, a fact reflected by the growing prowess of Korea's national teams.  Moreover, despite the brusing growth pains of the K-League, the 'provincializaton' policy of the KFA has proven to be a success. Today the K-League is arguably the strongest soccer league in Asia, based on the results of the Asian Champions League competition, which has been won by Korean sides 8 times, more than any other Asian nation.

The K-League is currently the oldest professional soccer league in Asia, and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma is its most storied franchise.  But the real news is this:  soccer has totally caught on in Korea.  Thanks to the KFA's sometimes-forceful policies, today the Beautiful Game is quite popular in South Korea.  And that is welcome news for any true football fan.