SUWON BLUEWINGS X FC SEOUL: A RIVALRY WITH A CONGLOMERATE BACKDROP

It was the moment that those in red and black had feared. A history of 148 goals from 254 appearances put painfully into perspective with just a single stroke of the ball. Dejan Damjanović had scored for the hated enemy, opening a pulsating new chapter in Korea’s greatest footballing rivalry.

The modern FC Seoul was formed in 2004, when a club known as the Anyang LG Cheetahs were allowed to return to the Korean capital – a location they had been ousted from eight years prior due to the K League’s “decentralization policy”. Upon their arrival, the side took up the 66,000-seater Seoul World Cup Stadium, the new home of the South Korean national team, and the arena which hosted the semi-finals of the 2002 tournament. With interest in domestic football on a high after an excellent showing as World Cup hosts, the stage was set for the growth of the K League and the formation of a modern Korean super-club.

However, just over 20 miles south of the Han River, a club known formally as ‘Suwon Samsung Bluewings’ would have their say on the matter. Active since 1995, the side established themselves as the powerful force in ‘capital region’ by winning consecutive league titles before the turn of the century. The Bluewings had a history and a following, making them inevitable rivals for any club which sought supremacy in the league, and would see them retain their rivalry with the Cheetahs even after their relocation.

“With K League still a relatively young league and FC Seoul ‘forming’ in 2004 after their relocation from Anyang, the history is largely still being written,” says Ryan Walters, a Korean football expert and ​founder of K League United, a website that provides official content for the league. Even without a vast historical pedigree behind it, Ryan asserts that this match is “easily the most well known rivalry within the league.”

Around that time the match was referred to as the ‘Jijidae Derby’, named after the hill on the South Korea National Route 1, as only around 17 kilometres separates the two cities” explains Paul Neat, the FC Seoul Columnist for K League United.

“Their rivalry stems from the expansion that happened in K League. Suwon were traditionally rivals with Anyang FC, their neighbouring team,” Scott Whitelock, K League United’s Suwon Columnist, informs me. “Anyang decided to move to Seoul and play in the vacant World Cup Stadium, and changed their name to FC Seoul in the process. The rivalry has persisted from there.”

The Bluewings had no intention of allowing their local rivals to become the dominant force warranted by the glamour of their location and grandeur of their formation. Moving into a purpose-built World Cup stadium of their own, the side sealed the 2004 title. Meanwhile, the newly christened capital club were left to lick their wounds after a dissatisfying fourth place finish. And thus, the modern iteration of Korean football’s greatest rivalry began in earnest.

Another field in which these two sides stand in direct opposition to one another is at the corporate level. Owned by Korean technology giants Samsung and LG respectively, the collision course between the Bluewings and FC Seoul mirrors that of their big-business backers. As two of the world’s biggest brand names sought to project the image of South Korea as a modern, prosperous economic powerhouse internationally, it was inevitable that their battle on the domestic front would spill over into the nation’s favorite sporting pastime, benefitting from a newfound love for football after the 2002 World Cup.

Like in most Asian leagues, the growth and development of these clubs are a reflection of the capitalist age from which they sprung, propped up by extensive and highly visible sponsorship deals. In Korea, the ‘Chaebol’ industrial conglomerates – who were responsible for the nation’s rapid economic expansion heading in to the 21st century – play a heavy role in the country’s growing football scene. Companies such as Hyundai and POSCO (Pohang Steel) have their names firmly attached to the nation’s leading football clubs, and continue to wield incredible influence on the domestic game.

That corporate rivalry is how it began in many ways,” Paul admits. “In terms of modern football, with TV rights being a major source of income for leagues and clubs, having a brand name attached to a team name is sensible, as long as said team is performing well. As a traditionalist, that is a bit of a sad indictment of modern football; but that’s the nature of the beast these days.”

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However, despite being shoehorned into public visibility across the league, the fans and and clubs have detached themselves from the prominence of corporate backing and instead built rivalries as genuine and passionate as any seen across the world. “It plays no role at all,” Scott claims of the LG/Samsung rivalry that is said to underpin the league’s greatest on-pitch feud. “The fans don’t see it as two big companies going toe to toe, just the clubs and the players on the pitch. I think that’s how it should be,” Paul agrees.

And on the pitch, Suwon’s 2004 title victory got the struggle between these two sides off to a flying start. A League Cup victory in 2006 did very little to offset the disappointment of consecutive mid-table finishes for FC Seoul. Their consistent underperformance against a side hailing from a city nine times smaller than that of the South Korean capital only served to heighten the sense of frustration felt by their supporters. It’s a “Seoul versus the World mentality,” Ryan describes.

However, the tables finally began to turn after four seasons of underperformance. In 2008, under the stewardship of Turkish coach Şenol Güneş, the first foreign coach in the club’s history, FC Seoul looked capable of finally becoming the force that they had always promised to be. Newly acquired Montenegrin forward Dejan Damjanović fired 15 goals in 29 league appearances to spearhead an enthralling title charge, witnessed by a club record average 20,868 keen-eyed spectators. As the two best-supported teams in the division for a number of seasons by then, the frantic race for superiority between these two fierce opponents was watched by a nation-wide audience, cementing their rivalry into K League folklore.

“They played each other in the K League Grand Final, [back] when playoffs were used to decide who became champions,” Paul recounts. After finishing second on goal difference behind Suwon, FC Seoul had the chance definitively to overhaul their opponent’s superiority, and claim their first ever K League Champions. The Red-and-Blacks comfortably dispatched Ulsan Hyundai FC in the semi-finals, setting up a dramatic two-legged final with the arch-nemesis.

The tie remained perfectly poised, as a 1-1 draw was played out in the South Korean capital. If they were to win, FC Seoul would have to cement their greatest ever achievement on the ground of the enemy. Unfortunately for them, it was not to be as a Jung Jo-Gook penalty was sandwiched between strikes from Song Chong-Gug and Brazilian striker Edu as the Bluewings sealed their fourth K League crown.

“In 2008, Suwon beat Seoul over two legs to become K League Champions,” Paul narrates. “Both teams had a lot of success at around the same time, which added another dimension to their already complex rivalry.”

“These two clubs have fought it out at or near the top of the K League table for a long time,” Ryan explains, adding that “with so many high stakes matches between them, some of it has boiled over into the fanbase.”

However, while matches between such fierce competitors in other nations have been marred by animosity and fan violence, the super match is characteristically civil, in a country where traditional values of respect have uniquely combined with the passion that football is able to inspire everywhere across the globe.

“In general, fan culture in the K League is not as aggressive or antagonistic as it is in other countries,” Paul reflects. “However, the die hard fans of FC Seoul and Suwon Bluewings are as passionate as they come in the K League,” he clarifies. “It would be foolish to wear an FC Seoul shirt in the Suwon end of the ground, for example, but generally it’s a safe environment.”

“There is vociferous support in the stadium but it rarely spills into violence,” Scott corroborates his counterpart’s statement. But, “make no mistake,” he adds; “the two sets of supporters hate each other.”

FC Seoul would go on to have their time in the spotlight, winning their first titles under their new name in 2010 and 2012, as well as making a run to the finals of the AFC Champions League before losing out to Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande. Once again, striker Dejan Damjanović was crucial to their success, finishing as the domestic division’s top scorer in back to back seasons, while playing a crucial role in his side’s continental adventure.

“Dejan became a K League legend and a hero at FC Seoul, he is still the record holder for most goals in a season with 31,” Paul explains of the Montenegrin striker. “He is also the highest goal-scoring foreign player of all time. On the 3rd of August 2016, he scored his 150th goal in his 254th appearance in the K League,” setting a record for the quickest player to reach that tally in the K League history.

In the interim, however, Damjanović departed the club, turning out for Chinese Super League sides Beijing Guoan and Jiangsu Sainty (now Jiangsu Suning), before returning to his home in the South Korean capital to deliver his side the 2016 K League title. Having played a pivotal role in all of the modern FC Seoul’s league championships to date, few players commanded as much adoration as he from the club’s faithful supporters.

While lightning did strike twice for the Red-and-Blacks, they too knew that all good things must come to an end. “A frosty relationship with the club’s manager at the time, Hwang Sun-Hong, ultimately lead to his departure as he was not offered a new contract,” Paul reports, carefully delineating one of the K League’s most impactful transfer sagas to date.

“In order to try and achieve his ultimate dream of winning the ACL, he joined Suwon Bluewings in January 2018.”

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While it is a move that left a scar, it certainly wasn’t one of malice, as Paul goes on to explain. “Dejan is and always will be a K League and FC Seoul legend. He didn’t want to leave FC Seoul but was left with no choice,” he claims. The decision to move to the arch enemy was also motivated by practical considerations, as “he had other offers other than Suwon but did not want to have to move his family to either another country or to somewhere far away from the Seoul Capital Area.”  

“In the third and final Super Match of 2018 in Suwon Dejan did [finally] score against Seoul but, as promised, did not celebrate as a mark of respect.” Despite this, the terms of his departure from Seoul were far from amicable, and the 6-foot-2 striker continues to cast a long shadow over the history of this derby.

Despite this being a rivalry being fought on a multitude of different fronts and being intensified by a variety of different factors, it wasn’t hard for fans to pinpoint the one aspect that allows this fixture to stand out. .

“The atmosphere at these games is the most special thing about it,” Scott claims. “The ‘Super Match’ is one of the best attended games [in the division] and creates an atmosphere that is unrivalled in K League.”

“Given how the teams are not based in the same city you could liken it to Manchester United versus Liverpool or the El Clásico. There’s a sense of local pride there amongst the citizens of both cities” Paul explains. “Both sets of supporters turn up in numbers for this fixture and are both amongst the most vocal in the country.”

Amid everything that gives the Seoul and Suwon derby prominence, the undying passion of the fans continues to be the lifeblood driving South Korea’s greatest rivalry forward. While the two sides may be well off the pace in 2018, the feud between them continues to provide an unrivalled spectacle for which Korean football is all the better for.

BY GIAN CHANSRICHAWLA