The winter was not a fierce one by Korean standards, except for one week in early February that saw Seoul temperatures plummet to minus 20, and the 2012 K-League certainly did not take long to warm up.
The excitement and controversy were getting going even before the big kick-off. 24 hours ahead of the opening game, Daejeon Citizen were in the headlines for letting veteran, and we are talking Dino Zoff style, goalkeeper Choi Eun-sung go.
It wasn’t that fans thought the 40 year-old who had been with the club since it came into existence in 1997 and was the third-choice ‘keeper at the 2002 World Cup, deserves an automatic starting place but the manner in which the club handled it angered almost all. The 40 year-old went on a pre-season tour of Mexico but learned that he wasn’t getting a contract on the week of season start.
Citizen fans planned a silent protest. They would go down to Gyeongnam FC for the opening game of the season but would not make a sound. In the end, it wasn’t that difficult. Amid driving rain and biting winds, the fans had little to shout about anyway as they lost 3-0 to the early table toppers.
The day earlier however, there was a little English Premier League style controversy as Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma defender Sasa Ognenovski refused to shake the hand of Jeonbuk Motors’ Brazilian playmaker Eninho before the game.
The two don’t get on. Basically The South American thinks the Australian plays too rough while the feeling coming the other way is that Eninho dives. The Brazilian had the last laugh however as he scored a late winner as the champions kicked off their defence with a 3-2 win.
Lee Dong-gook got the other two and in the process the Lion King, who had scored three goals in two games for the national team in the previous seven days including the opener in a vital 2-0 World Cup qualification win over Kuwait in midweek, set a new K-League goalscoring record with an 117th strike to move ahead of Woo Sung-yong.
Also on Saturday, Ulsan Horangi snatched a hard-fought 1-0 win at Pohang Steelers courtesy of giant striker Kim Shin-wook. If the Tigers can integrate their signings of fine attacking players – Lee Keun-ho and Kim Sung-yung from Gamba Osaka and Akihiro Ienega from Real Mallorca – and keep their usual defensive solidity then they will finish higher in the league than sixth.
If the handshake affair in Jeonju reminded of the Evra-Suarez incident in the English Premier League then in Daegu there was, a more tenuous link it has to be admitted, a kind of Carlos Tevez episode. OK, FC Seoul striker and 2011 top goalscorer Dejan Damjanovic did not refuse to come off the bench but the star striker did, according to coach Choi Yong-soo, refuse to play to his best and was subbed out after 22 minutes as Seoul drew 1-1 at Daegu.
The problem is that Seoul turned down a reported $5 million bid from Guangzhou R&F for the Montenegrin international. As you would expect, there would also be money to double Damjanovic’s salary and as you would expect the player was interested.
“His condition was OK ahead of the match. However, Dejan was not the player I am familiar with at all, so I took him off. Although he has conflicting interests with the club, he promised me (to play hard), but broke his word,” Choi told reporters. “I cannot forgive this. Despite the promise to me, he betrayed my and his teammates’ trust in him. I will not field him in future games if he does not change his attitude,” he said. “If we continue to show a solid performance like today, we will be able to achieve good results in the future despite the absence of Dejan.”
Seoul’s bitter rivals Suwon Bluewings fared better with a 1-0 win over Busan I’Park – a team that had a good season last year but were unable to stop bigger clubs taking their stars. It wasn’t a great performance from either team but Suwon’s new Australian defender Eddy Bosnar impressed as did Brazilian new boy Everton Cardosa Da Silva who scored the game’s only goal.
There are hopes that Incheon United can this season shed their usual mid-table status. 2002 World Cup heroes Kim Nam-il and Seol Ki-hyeon joined in the winter as did Australian international Nathan Burns. He was injured as United, led by Korea’s 2010 World Cup coach Huh Jung-moo, crashed to a 3-1 loss at Jeju United.
There weren’t many goals elsewhere. Last year’s bottom club Gangwon FC were delighted with a goalless draw at Chunnam Dragons while Gwangju FC got off to a good start with a 1-0 win at military club Sangju Sangmu.
This will be Sangju’s last season in the top tier. In the K-League’s 30th season, it has finally adopted relegation. Two teams will go down this season and as a non-professional entity, the army boys will be one of them. That is not all. Affter 30 games this season, the 16 teams will split, Scottish style, into two groups of eight that will play each other twice for the title and for the right to finish bottom.
That is a long way off. There are still 43 games to go.
Euro 2012 football