My Groundhopping Wish-list for 2023: Part 1
Almost four months to the day since Daejeon Hana Citizen rolled in to Gimcheon and battered their dejected hosts enroute to claiming the final spot in the 2023 K League 1 season, football is back! Finally. Gianni Infantino probably won't on the big screen in Jeonju, Messi is unlikely to be wearing a hanbok before lifting a trophy and I can't see Pohang Steelers spending half a billion pounds strengthening their squad for a mid-table push.
But we have football back and, like the rest of the world, we'll probably bemoan a VAR decision over a pint at some decision this weekend. Add in a goalkeeping blunder and a 95th minute screamer and it'll feel like football never went away.
My plan this season is to visit every ground in K League 1 and 2, plus attend a few high profile games in the lower leagues. Given there are 25 clubs to go see, double (or, even, triple) header weekends are imperative to realise this goal. Traveling throughout the country during the covid pandemic to watch football has usually been pretty straightforward, but now that all remaining restrictions have been dropped, here's hoping football fans across the land start to show up in greater numbers.
In other words, it should be a lot more fun again. Don't forget to check out K League United's season previews and the most recent podcast.
[READ: 2023 K League 1 Season Preview]
To make the games more interesting, I'm planning to see as many of the so-called derbies as possible. But, I am also hoping to see only one fixture per match-up. Living in Seoul, it would be convenient to see every FC Seoul v Suwon Samsung Bluewings game because the stadiums are easy to attend, they're two big clubs, and its always a big occasion. However, as I have penciled in Suwon Samsung Bluewings v FC Seoul in 'Big Bird', it means I'll be skipping the return fixture north of the Han River.
So these are the fixtures I'll be watching in K League 1 until June. All photographs used in this article are from my own Instagram account, instagram.com/groundhopping_korea
My football journey this season will start at Seoul's World Cup stadium on Saturday, February 25th. I had hoped to be in Ulsan for the blockbuster opening game of the season but a trip to see the defending champions will have to wait. The meeting of FC Seoul and Incheon United seems to be a decent compromise nonetheless. Following years of dodging relegation seemingly on the final day of the season, Incheon United powered to fourth last season, earning a spot in the AFC Champions League play-off round. About time they get to show off their shiny new stadium to a continental audience.
And what of FC Seoul? Four straight seasons of toiling around in lower mid-table wilderness is unlikely be tolerated in Mapo-gu, so with the help of a couple of eye catching winter recruits, Seoul look well placed to ignore the inconvenience of a relegation scrap. This game is, of course, a Gyeongin Derby and, loathe as I am to mention it, the stats department at Futbology tells me I once saw this fixture end in a 5-1 win for FC Seoul.
[READ: Futbology - A groundhopper's best friend]
From the groundhopping perspective, Seoul's home turf is well worth a check-in. The ground has its own subway stop on Line 6, it is a short bike ride from the Han River Park and about 10 minutes from the university area of Hongdae. Tickets are cheap and given the stadium's size, gaining entry won't be a problem. More to come on this magnificent structure next week.
|A view of Seoul's World Cup Stadium from the concourse.|
Next up will be the season's only city derby, as Suwon FC host the more illustrious Suwon Samsung Bluewings on Saturday, March 11th. But Suwon FC don't care about reputations and have finished above the Bluewings in each of their recent two seasons playing top-flight football. I was there, last season, when blue-and-red stripes absolutely destroyed the Bluewings thanks to three goals inside the first half hour. Like FC Seoul, Suwon look to have recruited well and should pull clear of the relegation spots by autumn (or, they'll be down by Chuseok).
The stadium is part of a wider complex which includes a baseball field and an indoor arena for basketball and volleyball. Not helped by the running track, there are certainly more aesthetically pleasing stadiums in Korea, but go there on a warm, sunny day, sit back with a cold beer and watch Lee Seung-woo weave his magic. It can be delightful in the right conditions.
|Suwon FC welcome neighbors Suwon Samsung Bluewings to the Sports Complex for a derby in early March.|
April will be a good month for groundhopping as the warmer weather returns and everyone gets excited to see cherry blossoms appear almost overnight. There are some stadiums, such as Seongnam FC's on the banks of the Tancheon River, which are great to access by bike or on foot, bringing nature into a day-out alongside football. I'll be starting the month at the April Fool's Day humdinger between Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Pohang Steelers. As ever, this should be a tasty match-up between two of K League 1's heavyweights.
This will also be my first trip outside of the Seoul metropolitan area this season, so it might as well be for a big game. Jeonbuk play at the city's World Cup Stadium. It isn't ideal to reach on foot, in a car or by public transport, but the stadium is really spacious outside, the Mad Green Boys make a lot of noise and, thankfully, there is no running track. Maybe it is my imagination, but the stands appear to be steeper than in other Korean stadiums, which helps create a more unique atmosphere.
Following Jeonju will be my first Sunday game of 2023. Daegu FC v Gwangju FC at DGB Daegu Bank Park in mid April. As football specific stadiums go, this one is right up there. The exterior is almost worth visiting on its own, with paintings of the home players hung on the steel structures overlooking the car park. There's a screen-golf club, dozens of bars and chicken restaurants and the obligatory convenience store with plastic furniture. The stadium is a short walk from one of the city's main train stations so arrive early, get some chicken and a drink, and soak up the pre-game atmosphere.
|DGB Daegu Bank Park should feature highly on any bucket-list this season. A gem of a stadium centrally located in the city of Daegu.|
On the field, Daegu FC plummeted from third in 2021 to barely fighting off relegation last season. I was fortunate enough to catch them in one of the year's most bizarre matches, which probably explains how they ended up with genuine relegation fears. They raced into a 3-0 lead away to doomed Seongnam, saw that lead vanish, retook the lead late on, blew that and were desperately lucky to hang on to a 4-4 draw. Gwangju FC, meanwhile, comfortably won K League 2 meaning they bounced back to the top tier after one season away.
If DGB Daegu Bank Park is a bucket list stadium for any football fan, sports lover or groundhopper in Korea, well, then, Jeju Island and its stadium should be absolute certainties. One of the best pre-match experiences I had last season was bringing my brother to that stadium. We walked around 5kms on a hot and humid July afternoon from a brewery west of Seogwipo along a road with fantastic oceans views on the left and Halla Mountain on the right.
|After a good year in 2022, Jeju United will be looking for more special nights at their superb World Cup Stadium.|
In late May, Jeju United host Suwon Samsung Bluewings and, even at this early stage, it is the game I'm most excited to see. The Bluewings usually travel in good numbers, even when the team is battling for K League 1 survival. But Jeju is all about the tangerine-coloured home strip of the home team, with excellent views of the volcano behind home supporters. As with most World Cup grounds, the main stand has a roof of notable intrigue and there's acres of space inside and outside the stadium. If you haven't been, please go!
And finally, for the first portion of the season, I'll be boarding the ITX train from Seoul's Yongsan Station to a town famous for marinated chicken and spectacular scenery. Chuncheon is where Gangwon FC will play their home games until July, when they move to the coastal city of Gangneung for the remainder of the year. On Sunday, June 11th, Gangwon FC host Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors at Songam Leports Town.
|Ulsan fans were waiting a long time to see their team win the championship. The league was decided at Gangwon FC's stadium last October.|
The stadium isn't very special but the home fans generate a huge amount of noise in the temporary stand behind the goals. Chuncheon, however, is a great trip when combined with the city's noted cuisine and nature activities. The stadium sits on the banks of the North Han River, and canoeing and kayaking are both available within a short walking distance of the ground. There's also a cable car across the river, and if this is your thing, Legoland was recently built on an island close by.
After each game, I'll write a review of each stadium and, once the season gets going, detail the other stadiums to visit in K League 1 this season; Incheon United, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Pohang Steelers, Ulsan Hyundai, Gwangju FC and Daejeon Hana Citizen.
Enjoy the games!