* This post is written by Mathew Burnett, one of the Korea Blog’s Worldwide Korea Bloggers.
The K-League’s back, but not as you knew it.
Last season each K-League team played thirty regular season regular season games before the top six fought it out in the playoffs to determine the champion. With no relegation to be fearful of the league’s worst-performing teams coasted towards the end of the season, but with relegation finally being introduced this season bums are sure to be far squeakier come the autumn.
The sixteen K-League teams will face each other home and away in thirty fixtures throughout the spring and summer. The resulting choc-o-bloc fixture list means for an increase in midweek football and the end for the albatross-like K-League cup. The playoffs have also been ditched and come late summer the league will split in two. The top eight sides will play one another home and away once again for the K-League title and the bottom eight similarly battling it out to avoid relegation.
All in all, each team will play no less than forty four regular season matches in what promises to be a marathon season.
But why have these changes come about? According to the KFA the new system will root out the match fixers, more than sixty of whom were arrested last season. They argue that less meaningless K-League cup and nothing to play for end of season fixtures will ensure teams are unwilling to throw games.
An unmentioned but surely equally important consideration for the KFA has to be the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and their call for promotion and relegation in its Asian leagues. The AFC has already shown its willingness to act on its word by cutting one of the K-League’s automatic entry berths for this season’s Champions League- forcing Pohang Steelers instead through the playoffs for the tournament.
Long time followers of the K-League will be unshocked to learn that while the plans for the new two-tiered system are in place, the actualities for implementation are still far from resolved.
The KFA officials originally wanted to relegate as many as four K-League clubs this season, but after concerns were raised by citizen clubs not backed by the big Korean corporations, this number was reduced to two clubs being demoted this year and two more in 2013. With no promotion until 2014, the top league will be reduced to fourteen and then twelve teams over the nest two years.
This year army team Sangju Sangmu will automatically be relegated due to the AFC’s dislike for military sides in top divisions, leaving just one spot to be avoided by the remaining fifteen K-League sides.
The new K-League division two will start in 2013 with six to ten teams in it, plus the two relegated K-League sides. It is hoped that these clubs will mainly be current second tier National League sides, though none of the divison’s existing clubs have yet to commit themselves to this plan. The KFA is attempting to woo such teams by waiving the league’s entrance fee and also with the promise of 25% of combined first and second division profits going to the second division clubs.
If National League clubs are shwoing concern about their futures upon joining the second division, the current K-League clubs are instead panicking. Many citizen clubs are already battling financial hardship prior to the threat of relegation, and their futures would be bleaker still were they to drop down a level. The KFA has attempted to dissuade such fears by offering relegated sides three years of first division profit allocations to soften the financial blow.
Ultimately the KFA is gambling on the idea that this new format will increase competition and in turn will increase interest in the sport, attendances and finances. Teams that draw more fans will be rewarded in their efforts by receiving a higher share of profits from the league, and if such incentives are strived for clubs will also be building more solid foundations for their own long term futures.
The new system represents a risk, not dissimilar from the one taken by Japan in 1999, where the league system now flourishes. It’s is a risk that has now become more of a necessity however. The K-League and its infrastructure has unquestionably grown and improved in the decade since the 2002 World Cup, but the gap between the corporately-owned haves and the citizen have-nots threatens to become a chasm and without a promotion and relegation system the citizen teams face the reality of unsustainability and potential extinction in the not too distant future.
At the start of the 2012 Korean football season the future is far from clear, but fans around the country will be hoping that the next two transition seasons herald the arrival of a prosperous new footballing dawn on the peninsula.