With the dust just settled on a season that threatened much but ended in relative success – try telling Arsenal fans that a domestic cup and third place league finish is something not to be sneezed at – Seoul’s sole representative in the Asian Champions League (and indeed the K-League Classic) prepares for another season of continental battles. It promises to be an adventure of epic proportions, bringing thrills, spills and drama before Seoul probably bows out to a Chinese club that pays the wages of a Barclay’s Premier League team in the knock-out stages.
The Asian Champions League is a tough competition to make out at times, with a skewed system of financial rewards that sees beaten semi-finalists receive a paltry USD 200,000 only one of a number of issues affecting the competition’s veracity. Despite being one of the strongest leagues in Asia, there is little doubt that the nearby J-League has more hate than love for the tournament, with domestic concerns often leaving sides unsure as to what kind of team to pick and fans trying to work out whether to bother. You can imagine J-League managers reminding travel-happy players and fans of the cautionary tale of Cerezo Osaka, whose Asian adventure in 2014 saw extra matches, travel, a pummelling at the feet of Guangzhou Evergrande and then the club plummeting into the second tier from which they have yet to return.
Meantime, Korean clubs have an immaculate record in the competition; 10 wins, twice that of its nearest rival. Despite not having won the trophy, FC Seoul can point to being twice beaten finalists, and with little worry of dropping into the K-League Challenge (welcome to the top flight Suwon FC!), will be giving their all in a group stage that could see the committed Diablo bolster their Korean Air frequent flyer points way beyond regional travel proportions.
Divided into East and West in order to help avoid trips that would send Marco Polo running for his antihistamines, there may still be a plethora of mid-week travel challenges should Adelaide United FC overcome Shandong Luneng Taishan FC in the final preliminary play-off round. First though, Seoulites get to experience Asian football Thai-style as the club jets off to Bangkok and then navigates the 400 kilometers to Buriram to face the runaway Thai champions at their 33,000 plus capacity New I-Mobile Stadium. Buriram finished 13 points ahead of Robbie Fowler’s old chums Muang Thong United last season with a startling goal difference of plus 74. Last season saw the club reach ten points in the group stages before bowing out in a three-way head-to-head record against Gamba Osaka and Seongnam FC (despite beating Seongnam in Thailand in the opening round of fixtures at the magnificently nicknamed Thunder Castle).
Once you reach Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, the travel choices reflect that 1980s Steve Martin/John Candy buddy comedy, with short flights or longer train, bus or car choices. A 60-minute flight to Buriram is available on Don Muaeng-based local carrier Nokair or the Tony Fernandez budget-owned airline Air Asia, which also leaves from Don Muaeng Airport. Trumpeting their new service as being at the behest of the many sports fans who want to go to the small city, the company is also promising a debut promotional fare significantly lower than its competitor. Once you arrive in Buriram, taxi services are your best bet to get either into town or straight to the stadium.
For something longer but cheaper (and with more departure options), the train from Hua Lamphong station takes between five and eight hours with three different carriage classes available. You can also take a bus from the Mo Chit Bus terminal in the north of the capital – the cheapest method but also probably the longest time-wise. Be sure to choose a bus with air conditioning. Tickets start at around THB 300 with Nakhon Chai Air (NCA) the best known. Whichever method you use, just be sure not to miss kick-off.
With the identity of the final competitor in Group F unknown until mid-February, travel plans will be put on hold until Adelaide United FC and Shandong Luneng Taishan FC duke it out. Those on a budget (or with a dislike of spending long trips in a metal tube moving at high velocity) may hope the Chinese outfit overcome the A-Leaguers, and with Adelaide having spent much of the season scrambling around at the foot of the table in the land down-under, a defeat to its Chinese sister club looks a distinct possibility. Looking ahead to May sees what will be the shortest trip for FC Seoul fans regardless of the final round of preliminaries as it renews hostilities with Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Last facing each other in 2014, Sanfrecce won the fixture in Hiroshima before some overly generous home-town officiating saw Seoul grab a last-minute equalizer from the spot in the return match at Sangam. Last season’s J-League champions will no doubt mix regular curiosity with worry, yet will not want to let the home fans down against what may be a sizeable visiting contingent.
The main Korean and Japanese airlines all offer services to Hiroshima, with prices starting at around KRW 300,000 for a return flight. From there, you can get a 50-minute bus ride to Nakasuji station on the overground Astram line, which will cost you 1,340 yen (about KRW 13,000). The Astram line was opened in 1994 to assist with access to the new all-purpose stadium, and will take you to the nearby Koiki-koen-mae Station. The 50,000-seater stadium is only a 5-minute walk away. Fancy a few days in Hiroshima? Sites such as the Hiroshima Peace memorial museum, Hiroshima Castle and the Itsukushima temple (first built in the 6th century. It is also famous for the absolutely delicious okonomiyaki dish and, for a little extra sport, the Hiroshima Carp baseball team plays at the Mazda Stadium.
While Korean sides generally do well in the Champions League – the country has the highest coefficient in West Asia – Seoul’s group will be one of the most competitive irrespective of which side comes through the preliminaries. If work won’t allow you a midweek trip overseas, be sure to head to Sangam for what promises to be some tight encounters. If you can get away, rest assured that there will be some Seoul fans traveling alongside you including FC Seoul’s foreign supporter’s club the Diablos. Scan those fixtures and, whether home or away, be prepared to follow Seoul’s premier football club.
FC Seoul Official website: https://www.fcseoul.com/en/main/main.jsp
FC Seoul’s Foreign Supporters Club: https://www.facebook.com/groups/DiablosBlancos/
February 23, 2016: Buriram FC vs FC Seoul
March 16, 2016: T.B.C. (Adelaide United FC or Shandong Luneng Taishan FC) vs FC Seoul
May 4, 2016: Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs FC Seoul