Back in March, I was informed by a colleague that Gangwon FC had a K-League match coming up in the city of Gangneung, close to where my girlfriend Becca (another Brit teaching English over here) lives and so we went along. The signs on the way up to the stadium were all good: we could see the team’s crest impressively mounted upon the stand as we approached and a few cars and early spectators were milling about outside the ground. As we drew closer however, things started to go wrong. The two ticket offices weren’t just unmanned, they were uninhabited: one included nothing but two chairs (one lying on its side) and a computer covered in dust and the other nothing more than a few cardboard boxes. Call it intuition, but we suspected something was amiss.
We wandered around the ground; there was definitely a game happening that day, we could see things being taken into the stadium and the nets being hung on the goalposts as we glanced through doors. Eventually, growing bored of standing outside in the drizzle, I manfully marched through a door marked ‘Press and Players’ Entrance’ and had a nosy around. We could see the pitch through an open door, as well as four stands’ worth of multi-coloured seats. It looked impressive enough, but still very empty and kick off was now just an hour away according to Gangwon FC’s website. After a while, we found an official-looking bloke (he was wearing a high-visibility vest) and, with the help of a translator app, asked where we could buy tickets for today’s game. Smiling, he informed us that today’s game was free and pointed to one open turnstile through which we could get into the ground and get ourselves a seat.
There was now a mere half an hour before kick-off. To kill time, we decided to have a look around the concourse before going out and getting a seat. This was a sobering mission. Dust lay on every surface, big Coca-Cola-sponsored fridges stood empty, some with their doors hanging off and every door bar the exit was locked. It was genuinely possible to envision what this ground might have been had local interest in the team been greater. Gangwon FC had only formed 4 or 5 years previously with the team owners clearly hoping for big attendances given they were the only team in the whole Province. This was not to be, however, and made for a sorry-looking sight as we toured the stadium.
Undeterred, however we went to find a seat for the game. We, at least, would show our support for our adopted-home town’s team! After originally choosing seats behind a goal, we relocated to the covered stand after it became apparent that nobody was going to stop us.
The advertised kick-off time came and went without so much as a suggestion of a game taking place. However, as the afternoon wore on, a few fans made their way into the stadium and then, finally, around half an hour after we’d expected kick-off, the scoreboard flashed into life to inform us that Gangneung City FC would be taking on Busan City in the second round of the Korean FA Cup!
Gangwon FC no longer played at this ground. We’d been misinformed (further study of their website revealed that Gangwon FC now split their home fixtures between my home city of Wonju and Chuncheon, the capital of the Province). Still, a match is a match so we settled down to enjoy. At 4pm there must have been a whole hundred people inside the ground to watch what can only be described as one of the most boring games I’ve ever seen. If any of you were unfortunate enough to witness NUFC’s 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace a few season’s back, this game was on a par with that. Unfortunately, there was nothing to fashion into paper planes this time.
Things brightened at half-time, however. The rain that had been a drizzle a couple of hours ago had strengthened into a downpour and a fierce wind was whipping around the ground. As we stood shivering on the concourse, a man heard me mention that I was cold.
‘Cold?’ he said ‘follow me!’ So we followed the strange man off through the ‘crowd,’ and through a door marked KFA. He poured us coffee and informed us that we were in the KFA’s offices. Very nice they were too. After standing us next to a heater, he pointed out some of the famous faces and trophies on the walls before leaving us to reheat in peace. We couldn’t thank him enough (it was seriously cold).
Somewhat reluctantly, we headed back outside for the second half. It was equally boring. As was extra-time – this was a cup game, remember? Until, with 5 minutes remaining Busan scored. Then, with 2 minutes remaining Gangneung equalised. The relief that swept the crowd was…muted. Penalties. Gangneung won 5-3 to send the ‘masses’ home wet but happy. Mostly wet.
Another happy surprise came our way upon the penalties’ completion though. A Korean bloke bearing an official KFA football came weaving through the crowd, handed it to me, smiled at my surprised word of thanks that I managed in Korean and silently went on his way. I think we may have been the first and only foreigners ever to watch Gangeung FC play.
On our way out of the ground, a bloke heard us speaking English and engaged us in the usual conversation: ‘where are you from?’ ‘what do you do in Korea?’ Long story short, it turned out he was the ex-principal at the school where Becca teaches. He seemed delighted about this and offered us a lift back into the centre of Gangeung. Champion.
All in all, my first Korean footballing experience was a positive one, though hopefully the standard of football will improve when I eventually get to a K-League game.
The season starts soon, til then, blog on!
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