Why do South Korean teams dominate the Asian Champions League? by Tim Alper (Tim writes for South Korea’s leading football monthly, Best Eleven)
August 11, 2013
Since the Asian Champions League’s inception in 1967, albeit under a different moniker, South Korean clubs have made the final 16 times. The club which has won the most titles is Korean, and two Korean clubs have won the cup and then gone on successfully defended their titles - something which not even the mightiest of European clubs has managed in the Champions League.
Since single-leg finals were introduced in 2009, a Korean team has won every single year - with the exception of 2011 - when a Korean team lost on penalties.
Just by looking at the stats, you might think that Korea's K-League is the Asian equivalent of the Bundesliga, La Liga and the EPL, all rolled into one. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
In 2011, the league was rocked to its very core when one of the biggest match-fixing scandals ever to be uncovered anywhere on the planet broke. Several young players committed suicide, an entire team was booted out of the league. Managers, coaches and players were sentenced by judges to years of hard labour. The scandal even claimed one of South Korea's heroes of the national team, Choi Sung-kuk, whom FIFA have now banned from all football-related activities for life.
Young South Korean players are constantly on the look-out for an escape to Europe - some of its biggest rising stars have even chosen to play in Saudi Arabia or Qatar instead of sticking around in Korea. Most of the league's foreign players fail to settle in the K-league. With a few notable exceptions, any non-Korean who has done well in the K-League has usually moved on somewhere else within a year of his success.
Attendances in the K-League are feeble, too. Rarely does a stadium ever sell out - the average attendance is just over 9,000, and this season's low is a paltry 1,682. In contrast, Japan's J-League has about 50% bigger crowds, money is flowing into Middle Eastern leagues, and Australia's new A-League is going from strength to strength.
So why is it, then, that Korean, rather than other teams, are so dominant in Asian competitions?
Well, the reasons are multiple. Firstly, Korean football has come a very long way in a very short space of time. Long-term fans on German football will recall the exploits of "Cha Boom" - Cha Bum-geun - the South Korean striker who starred for Bayer Leverkusen during the 1980s. But for him, though, there were no International Korean football names - until, that is, the turn of the millennium.
Hosting a World Cup changed the game for Korea. Suddenly, top-of-the-line football stadiums, training grounds and even facilities like hotels and press centres appeared in the country.
Then, with Guus Hiddink at the helm, Korea did the unthinkable in 2002, reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup. Becoming the first Asian country to go so far in a World Cup, disposing of the likes of Italy and Spain on the way, cannot help but give you some degree of swagger.
Add to this the huge, government-led football investment that a World Cup inevitably brings and you can see why the league in Korea has raced ahead of the rest of Asia.
Korean businesses have also been keen to get behind football in the country. Just as is the case with Korean baseball, many major Korean businesses lend their names to K-League teams in exchange for substantial financial backing. Mega-conglomerations like Samsung and Posco own teams - Hyundai even has two.
Contrast this with the rest of Asia and you can see why Korea are so far ahead of the chasing pack - that chasing pack are disjointed and inconsistent.
Even vast injections of cash have not helped - the Bunyodkor FC experiment, which saw the likes of Felipe Scolari, Zico and Rivaldo play or manage at Uzbekistan's richest club, did not last long enough to provide a sustained challenge to Korean clubs. The incentive that brought Nicholas Anelka and Didier Drogba to China's Shanghai Shenhua has crashed and burned, too.
Instead, Korean clubs have seen slow, steady, cautious investment, and as Aesop would tell you, that's what will win you the race. With only one participant left in this year's Asian Champions League, the rest of the continent may yet enjoy a respite from Korean Champions League dominance this. But make no mistake, the end to Korea's almost total monopoly of this competition is a long, long way from being over.