FC Seoul v Sangju Sangmu, Saturday 9th July 2011, 8pm

Going to the match, any match, is quite difficult in Korea at the moment.  The rainy season is scuppering the baseball and in what seems to me to be really inconsiderate timing the second and third division football teams are on their holidays. Despite starting and finishing their seasons at roughly the same time as the K-League, the teams in the National and Challengers leagues knock off to the beach for six and eight weeks respectively in the summer.

So what does that leave? Not much really. I think if the weather had been better then I’d probably have looked to get up a mountain somewhere. Ice hockey would be the perfect solution. An arena with the air conditioning set cold enough to stop ice from melting? That sounds just about perfect. But, no, it’s a winter sport so I’ll have to wait until the weather is just as cold outside as inside and it doesn’t seem anything like as attractive in those circumstances.

Sometimes though, something crops up that makes a particular game irresistible, and that was the case with the Sangju Sangmu’s visit to Seoul.

South Korean football is going through a crisis at the moment with around a hundred top-flight players under investigation for match-fixing or gambling on their own games. So far, forty odd have been indicted, with ten being banned for life and one getting ten months in chokey. More players are being lifted each day, with most clubs being affected either through having taken part in a fixed game or by having subsequently signed a player who did.

However, even amongst misery you can usually find a positive and this week it came from Sangju Sangmu. The military team is one of those teams most involved, with fifteen of its players either under investigation or already banned. Three of those players ruled out are goalkeepers, leaving them with just last season’s Jeonbuk keeper Kwon Soon Tae.

Now, when you are the only remaining goalie on the books, you’d be careful wouldn’t you? You’d keep your fingers away from the bacon slicer or dogs with large teeth. You’d probably try not to strain your back whilst reaching for the remote control for your telly as David James once managed to do, or to sever a tendon in your foot by dropping a jar of salad cream on it in the way that another former England goalie, Dave Beasant, once did.

Salad Cream - Banned from Kwon's fridge

Kwon Soon Tae was able to keep himself out of his local Accident and Emergency department, but he just couldn’t resist picking up two yellow cards and an early bath in the game against Daejeon. This meant that not only did an outfield player have to take over in goal for the remainder of that game, but Kwon’s one match suspension would ensure that an outfield player had to start between the sticks in the following game away to Seoul. That’s some silver lining to the match-fixing scandal.

I love it when an outfield player has to go in goal. Really love it, as Wor Kev might say. And so there was no way I was going to be anywhere else on Saturday evening than the World Cup stadium to see some hapless bloke with his gloves on the wrong hands getting smacked in the chops with a football.

"I'd love it if Lee Yoon Eui had to dress up as a goalie and flap his arms around, just love it."

Just in case an outfield player in goal wasn’t enough excitement for one day, Jen and I decided to walk to the stadium from our apartment in Yeoksam. It’s fourteen kilometres as the crow flies apparently. Not that the way a crow would get there is particularly relevant as we decided to make it a bit more interesting by setting off in the opposite direction and walking to the Olympic Stadium first before joining the Han river. It took the distance up to something around twenty kilometres. Or at least it would have done if the river hadn’t been swollen by the recent rain. Whole sections of path were under water and we frequently had to detour through apartment complexes, over bridges or under roads.

This fella was determined to exercise his dog.

More than once we encountered a dead-end and had to retrace our steps before realising that a twenty minute trek had moved us no more than a hundred yards further along the path. At half past six we came up against one blockage too many and after five hours of walking called it a day. We still had six kilometres to do, but didn’t want to risk missing a single moment of comedy goalkeeping.

We'd had enough by this time.

It was as difficult to get into the stadium as it had been to walk to it. We wanted to sit in the away fans section behind the goal, but the woman in the ticket office told us that it was sold out. As if. I’d have been more likely to have believed her if she had tried to claim that her dog had eaten all of the tickets. There are around twelve thousand seats behind that goal, probably enough for the entire town of Sangju to attend the game if they fancied it. Eventually she stopped her nonsense and sold us two tickets. As expected there were no more than a hundred away fans in total.

Lee Yoon Eui was the unlucky outfield player who was going to play in goal. To make it even more interesting he was making his league debut. His only previous professional appearance had been a twenty five minute run-out as a substitute in a League Cup game against Busan earlier this season. Still, it’s better than digging foxholes or firing at innocent passenger planes that you have mistaken for North Korean fighter jets.

Look out, it's a North Korean fighter plane.

In the pre-match warm-up, Lee didn’t look as if he had ever seen a football before. The goalie coach threw a few easy balls for him to catch, but the concept of jumping in the air and collecting the ball at the highest point possible was something that Lee looked to be struggling with. They moved on to a bit of shooting practice and perhaps not understanding what he was meant to do, the debutant keeper successfully avoided almost every shot that came in his direction. Maybe it was his military training kicking in. By the time the teams had completed the warm-up I was fully expecting a ten goal or more victory for Seoul.

Prior to kick off, the players stood in line whilst the captains each made a short speech, the gist of it being, I think, that they would only bet on the horses from now on and that they wouldn’t take much in the way of bribes until the fuss had died down a bit.

Once the game kicked off, I’d been expecting Seoul to be shooting on sight. They didn’t though and it was ten minutes before Lee had to make a save. Even then, it was a fairly tame effort straight at him. We had more of the same for the first half hour with the Seoul players obviously not realising that all they had to do was to place the ball a yard wide of the keeper. Maybe they had taken advantage of the generous odds and backed a nil-nil draw.

Lee grew in confidence and started coming for and collecting crosses in a way that he didn’t look capable of doing in the warm-up. His kicking was good too, as you would expect, and for a while it was as if the game was being played with two proper keepers.

Half an hour in, veteran Seoul defender Edilson gave away a penalty and Sangju had the chance to take the lead. Kim Jung Woo took the spot kick and put the visitors a goal up with the sort of casual chip that would have resulted in him doing guard duty all week had it been saved.

0-1

Sangju saw out the rest of the half with some decent defending and a little luck as they survived a goalmouth scramble or two. I couldn’t believe how reluctant Seoul had been to pepper the Sangju goal with shots. The second half began with a bit of excitement as Lee gave away a free-kick by picking up a backpass. Again Seoul seemed to think that they were facing Gordon Banks and failed to grasp that just hitting the target would probably have been enough.

Ten minutes into the half, Seoul finally made the breakthrough. Lee Yoon Eui got caught in no man’s land, something which as a soldier you would think he would be trained to avoid. Dejan Damjanovic was able to slide the ball past him and off the post into the net. Maybe the goal gave the Montenegrin a bit of confidence as ten minutes later he scored his second of the evening. This time it was with a shot from the edge of the box that Lee dived over in the manner of someone trying to make as big a splash as possible by bellyflopping into a swimming pool.

As there were still twenty five minutes remaining I fully expected a few more goals. Lee had been found out and all Seoul had to do was hit shots that required him to dive. They didn’t though and seemed content to sit back on their lead. Ten minutes from the end their complacency backfired as Kim Min Soo curled a direct free kick over the Seoul wall to level the scores.

2-2

That’s the way it should have stayed too. However, the ref added five minutes of injury time and with seconds to go Bang Seung Hwan got the winner for the Seoul after heading home a corner from a couple of yards out. It was the sort of cross that a proper keeper would have just plucked out of the air. Unfortunately Sangju didn’t have a proper keeper and it cost them the point, possibly all three if you considered the earlier errors.

In the circumstances, Sangju and their fans didn’t seem too down-hearted. It was a game that they expected nothing from and that’s exactly what they got. I’d been hoping for some comedy goalkeeping and in the end I got what I’d been expecting too. Providing he can keep a tight grip on the salad cream, Kwon Soon Tae will be back between the posts in the next game for the military team and Lee Yoon Eui can go back to spending his Saturday afternoons weeding the parade ground.

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