Incheon Korail against Yesan was the first game in what I remember speedway fans calling a ‘double header,’ two matches back to back, although in this case on different pitches and with far less dust in my hair at the end of it. It was the opening day of the season for the teams in the second tier National League and I was going to watch Incheon Korail before taking in the match between their close neighbours Incheon United and Ulsan in the top division straight afterwards. And when I say close neighbours, I mean it. We are talking maybe forty yards between the two stadiums. It’s quite possible that a defensive clearance from one pitch could find its way onto the other, holding up the game whilst someone either politely boots the ball back or else not so politely threatens to stick a knife in it if it comes over again.
Incheon isn’t too far from me and whilst it’s apparently a city in its own right, there doesn’t really seem to be anything separating it from Seoul. The Seoul subway runs to Incheon and the main international airport for Seoul is situated at Incheon. So with that in mind I didn’t really have a great sense of urgency about setting off for the match, which was a bit of a mistake really. After leaving my apartment at about a quarter to two, I checked my subway map to discover that I needed to change lines three times and travel through thirty two stations. Possibly, allowing an hour and a quarter might have been a bit ambitious. It was extremely ambitious as it turned out and it took me over an hour and a half just to reach the Munhak Stadium subway station.
The exit from the station was packed with food stalls, selling the usual fried dough stuff, sushi, dried octopus and some things on sticks that didn’t look too healthy. I was tempted to stop and get something as I doubted there would be much for sale at the Incheon Korail game, but as I had already missed the first twenty minutes I decided to leave it. I could see the World Cup Stadium ahead and knew that whilst Korail sometimes played there, today their match was on the practice pitch next to the main stadium.
As I walked towards the Munhak World Cup stadium, I could hear the noise of the crowd. I doubted that it would be coming from the practice pitch and for a moment wondered whether I’d got the two kick-offs mixed up and it was actually the Incheon United game that I’d missed the first twenty minutes of. But no, the sound was actually coming from a baseball game in the stadium to my right. It was a different sound to that of a football crowd. I think every time the pitcher threw the ball or the batsman hit it or maybe even every time the beer and hotdog man appeared, everyone in the stadium seemed to shout something at the same time before quickly reverting to general background mumbling. I passed a tout and he offered me a ticket for five thousand won (about three quid). I’ve no idea how much the face value of the ticket was or even how long the game had been going on for, so I couldn’t tell you if that was good value or not. Mind you, for three quid I don’t suppose it mattered much. Good value or not, I turned the ticket down, not so much because I didn’t fancy seeing the baseball, because I did. But it could wait, it was the first game of the season for Incheon Korail and I was late. Getting later as well, as the practice pitch was behind the main stadium and so I still had a fair trek to get there.
I walked around the main stadium which was pretty quiet. There were over two and a half hours to go before the K League Incheon United game kicked off and the only people around were car park stewards and a few kids throwing baseballs to each other. I dodged a couple of stray ones, baseballs that is, not kids or car park stewards and finally arrived at the Korail stadium ten minutes before half time. I say stadium, but that’s pushing it. There was one quite large stand that could hold maybe three thousand and a much smaller one facing it. The pitch was inside a running track and both ends behind the goals had nothing more there than a couple of ball boys waiting for someone to scuff a shot wide or a lightning bolt to put them out of their misery. I headed for the small stand as it was nearest and I didn’t fancy walking around the pitch whilst the game was on. It was free to get in, or at least it was at three thirty five. If there had been someone taking money before kick off that’ll teach him not to skive off early.
One of the reasons that I don’t like being late for matches, particularly matches like this, is that it means that I’ve no idea of the important little details. Important little details like the score for example. I also had no idea as to which team was which. Actually, never mind which team was which; I didn’t even know who Incheon were actually playing. It was a detail that hadn’t really seemed important when I’d set out from my apartment a couple of hours earlier. With that degree of ignorance I wouldn’t have known where to start asking one of the thirty or so people in my stand for information, even if I could speak their language. They would probably have felt compelled to keep on feeding me details to fill the glaring gaps in my knowledge, quite justifiably starting with the day of the week and then progressing to checking my passport and telling me my own name.
I suspected that Incheon Korail were the team in all white as they had the KTX logo of the high speed train on their shirts. Incheon Korail are, I’ve read, the oldest team in Korea. With the frequent reorganising of the leagues and the even more frequent relocation and renaming of teams to suit anyone but the supporters, most teams don’t have much of a history. Incheon Korail do though, starting out as the a railway team in 1943 and although they have changed names a few time, as rail companies tend to do, they have been around pretty much ever since.
The other team were in blue shirts with white shorts, and as the strips are of no benefit to me in identifying the teams yet, I’ll call them Italy. The stand that I was in didn’t have any seats, it was just concrete steps, perfect for standing, but the other thirty people were all sat down with the exception of two small kids who were walking up and down them as if they were in boot camp. I’d had to stand for quite a lot of the journey on the train so I joined the adults and sat on the steps. Not long after I’d done so the ref blew for half time and I stood back up and walked self consciously behind the goal, wondering if someone would tell me off for being somewhere I shouldn’t without a platform ticket, before taking a seat, albeit still not a real one, in the main stand.
It was a much better view from the bigger stand. Not only was I higher up and with the World Cup stadium providing a backdrop, I could now see the scoreboard that was on the other side of the ground. Korean scoreboards are different to ours. They show the scores for each half separately, one beneath the other, and you have to add them up. So, as the second half had yet to start it was showing as 0-0, above it the scoreboard revealed that Korail has won the first half 1-0.
Having established the score, I was free to enjoy the second half. Incheon looked to be playing an adventurous 4-2-4 formation, whilst Italy went for a more conservative 4-3-3. A few minutes into the second half one of the Korail strikers, Kim Hyung-Woon, who had been involved in most of their good moves, skillfully lobbed the keeper for the second goal of the afternoon. I was relieved when the scoreboard confirmed that it was 2-0 and not 1-1 and that Korail were definitely the team in white. A minute after scoring though Mr Kim went up for a header and missed the ball, connecting instead with the back of the centre half’s head. That was his afternoon over. I took advantage of the break in play (and of his nose) to count the crowd. If we include the two bored looking cameramen to my right, but miss out the subs and ball boys, there were one hundred and thirty people there. Possibly one hundred and thirty one if the object on the far side that I’d taken to be a holdall was actually a well behaved small child.
When the match resumed both sides were playing good passing football but they all seemed incredibly slow, as if they were running on sand. Maybe the lack of pace is what tends to separate the K League players from those in the National League. Although I have to say that I doubt many of the top flight players in Korea that I’ve seen so far would trouble Linford Christie over a hundred metres. Nor his Auntie Agatha either, I would imagine.
With a quarter of an hour left Korail brought on Park Yong-Hwan and he brightened the remainder of the afternoon by being incredibly greedy, infuriating his team mates by refusing to pass if there was a option instead for him to blast the ball wide from an impossible angle or try to take on a man too many. With the shouts of the players being clearly audible over the mutterings in the crowd, I’m sure he helped me to learn my first Korean swear words.
Towards the end Korail had a player sent off for taking a shot a fraction of a second after the ref had blown for offside. I’m sure the ref didn’t realize that he was already on a yellow when he brandished the second one, but it was too late and he had to get the red out. Lee Gyeong-Min went off like a sulky kid, first pleading, then getting angry, then doing a bit more pleading. He walked incredibly slowly towards the touchline, turning back a couple of times to offer to give up his Playstation for a week if he could come back on, before finally ripping off his gloves and leaving the pitch on the verge of tears to go and tell his Mam about the mean bloke with a whistle. There was a bit of a late rally from Italy in which the Korail keeper took a knock and had to be subbed before the ref brought things to an overdue end and I took a short cut back across the pitch towards the Main stadium and my second game of the afternoon.