FC Seoul: an insider’s guide

FC Seoul, the opponent of Western Sydney Wanderers FC in the semi-finals of the 2013 Asian Champions League, not only divides opinion in South Korea, it also divides facts. Some say a win for the Koreans would take them to a third continental final. Others insist it would only be the second.

The last appearance came in that thrilling two-legged showdown last November that Seoul ‘lost’ on away goals to Guangzhou Evergrande. The first would have been the appearance of Anyang LG Cheetahs back in 2002 in the final of the ACL’s forerunner, the Asian Club Championship, as it lost to neighbours and rivals Suwon Bluewings.

The 2004 decision of electronics giant LG to move the Anyang club to the capital in order to occupy the then-vacant Seoul World Cup Stadium was hugely controversial and is worthy of its own article. Suffice to say that in the end, Anyang ended and FC Seoul started. The new version claims Anyang’s past triumphs as its own. Many others disagree.

What is not up for debate is that Seoul, sometimes called ‘FC Immoral’ by opposing fans (a nickname that sounds better in Korean), has won two titles in the capital. The first came in 2010 under Portuguese coach Nelo Vingada. Choi Yong-soo was in charge for the 2012 triumph and ‘The Eagle’, once a feared striker throughout Asia, still occupies that perch.

After losing out to Guangzhou last November, Choi would love nothing more than to go one better in 2014. This is not the same team however. Veteran Brazilian left-back Adilson Dos Santos is now on the coaching staff, replaced by Spanish star Osmar Barba, who has already established himself as a fan favourite due to his forays forward and set pieces.

Dejan Damjanovic’s big money move to China’s Jiangsu Sainty in December was a blow as the Montenegrin had consistently been the K-League’s top striker over the preceding five or six seasons (compared to many Asian clubs, Seoul’s ability to hang on to foreign players for multiple seasons is an oft-overlooked strength).

Less talked about but just as damaging was the departure of Ha Dae-sung to Beijing Guoan. The captain and playmaker has been missed and neither he nor Damjanovic have been adequately replaced.

Coach Choi was sometimes criticised by fans for relying too much on the foreign contingent -which includes the still talented but fading Colombian star Mauricio Molina – to paper over predictable tactics.

This theory seemed to be borne out by an absolutely dreadful start to 2014 which saw Seoul in the relegation zone for most of the first half of the season. Only a recent upturn in form has lifted the red and blacks to mid-table.

The weakening of Seoul’s firepower has led to a tighter defence. It depends on the selection but Choi can field perhaps the physically strongest backline of any in the K-League. Despite a relatively poor season, Seoul has conceded less than a goal a game.

Going forward, there is still talent but it is inconsistent as personified by the speedy Yun Il-rok who can play all over the forward line and the equally fast and equally frustrating Go Yo Han. Brazilian striker Everton Santos has yet to really impress while target man Park Hee-seong is powerful though limited. Talented midfielder Koh Myung-jin was one of the stars of 2013 but has struggled a little without his partner Ha.

This team may not match the 2013 version in terms of attacking talent but it has two major advantages compared to last year. First, the experience of that campaign is valuable. Most have been here before.

Secondly, Seoul can focus almost completely on the Champions League unlike last year when the two games with Guangzhou came as the Koreans were fighting to stay, first in the K-League title race, and then in the fight to qualify for the 2014 Asian Champions League. In contrast, Guangzhou had the Chinese title long since sewn up by the time they two teams met.

The number of finals the club has been in may be disputed but nobody can argue will the fact that Seoul is looking for a first ever Asian title and while the club has lost some stars, the desire is stronger than ever.