- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

SEOUL — It’s hard to believe that this soccer-mad country’s capital city, Seoul — with a population of 10million — does not have a professional club represented in the 12-team Korean League, known as the K-League.

Imagine New York City without the Yankees, or the Washington area without the Redskins, and you get an idea why some fans are frustrated, especially after the Korean national team did so well at last year’s World Cup.

“It’s all to do with politics and money,” said Dae Hee Kwak, a graduate student in sports management from Seoul. “Think about it. One fourth of Korea’s population [43 million] live in Seoul and we don’t have a team.”

At the opening game of the Peace Cup at Seoul’s World Cup Stadium earlier this week, some local soccer fans demonstrated with signs that said “give us a team.”

Many in Seoul eagerly want a club, but no team is willing to move into the city because of the hefty price.

The Seoul government is demanding a $20million fee to start a K-League franchise within the city limits, and then the club must rent out the giant 65,000 World Cup stadium for its home games.

Like the District’s baseball fans, Seoul’s soccer faithful live with hope.

“I can’t explain it,” said Tok Kyun Yun, a local fan. “I just support the Korean national team, but if there was a team here I would follow it.”

Most of the teams in the K-League are backed by big corporations. The giant firm Hyundai runs three teams — the Ulsan Tigers, Chonbuk Motors and Busan Icons.

But not all the teams are supported by big business. Daejeon Citizen is run by the city of Daejeon and the players wear “We Love Daejeon” on their jerseys.

The army has a team, the Sangmu Phoenix. The Phoenix often do well, because every Korean male must complete two years of military service and many conscripts arrive with K-League experience.

It seems only a matter of time before a team from Seoul joins the K-League, Asia’s oldest soccer league that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

“The media and the fans are clamoring for a team,” Kwak said. “There’s talk that the city will lower the price. It may take a few more years, but we will get our club.”

Meantime, many fans in Seoul root for five-time champion Songnam Chunma, based 20 miles south of Seoul, or the Suwon Blue Wings, backed by Samsung Electronics, about 30 miles from the capital.

Tough trip — It was a long but productive trip to the Peace Cup for the Kaizer Chiefs. It was the first time the South African club had ever traveled outside of Africa.

After a 1-0 loss to K-League champions Songnam Chunma before 33,000 fans in the World Cup Stadium in Suwon, the Chiefs will not be battling for the $2million prize in next week’s final.

“Our limitations are such that we can’t travel and play international teams outside our country,” said Chiefs coach Ted Dumitru. “If we get more opportunities like [the Peace Cup], African clubs will get much stronger.”

The gray-haired Dumitru is famous in Africa for writings on the “science of soccer.”

The Romanian native is a U.S. citizen with a home in San Diego and played in the U.S. for the Rochester Lancers of the North American Soccer League. He has coached a number of African clubs and joined the Chiefs two weeks ago with hopes of leading them to the Premier Soccer League title, which always has eluded the Johannesburg-based club.

Chiefs assistant coach Doctor Khumalo, a legend in South Africa, was one of the founding players of Major League Soccer in 1996 and starred for the Columbus Crew for a number of seasons.

Who were those fans? — More than 100 orange-clad fans rooted for the Kaizer Chiefs against Songnam in Suwon. Is it possible that they traveled all the way from Africa for the game? Well, no. The enthusiastic supporters, decked out in the colors of the Chiefs and waving the club’s flags, were all locals.

“The Koreans are very egalitarian and don’t want anyone to feel left out,” said soccer writer Eoghan Sweeney. “A group will always get together and root for the underdog. It happened at the World Cup. It’s like a big party.”

The Kaizer flags and shirts were donated by the South African Embassy.

Friday’s games — In yesterday’s Group B Peace Cup games, the Los Angeles Galaxy (0-0-2, 2 points) failed to find the back of the net again, playing a scoreless tie with German team 1860 Munich (0-1-1, 1) in Daejeon. In their first game of the event, the Galaxy tied Nacional of Uruguay 0-0. Nacional (1-0-1, 4) beat Dutch champion PSV Eindhoven (1-1, 3) 3-1 in Seoul. Los Angeles has a slim chance of making Tuesday’s championship game, but must beat PSV at Suwon tomorrow and hope Munich downs Nacional. Today in GroupA, Korean champ Songnam (2-0, 6) can clinch a place in the championship game with a tie against French champ Lyon (1-1, 3) in Jeonju. In the other GroupA game, Turkish champ Besiktas (1-1, 3) plays Kaizer Chiefs (0-2, 0) in Busan.

High numbers — Local reporters were startled to see one of the Chiefs’ players wearing the number 115 in Thursday’s loss against Songnam. A team official said the reason for the high number was that the player could not wear 15 because it was the number Khumalo wore. The club will retire 15 after a benefit game for Khumalo later this year.

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