This excerpt was taken from Devon Rowcliffe’s new book, Who Ate All the Squid?: Football Adventures in South Korea, available to order here. Rowcliffe spent a year travelling across the Korean peninsula watching K League matches with Busan I’cons supporters, during the season that a British management team and trio of players with Premier League experience joined the club.
South Korea’s military dictatorship faced a predicament in the 1980s: democracy protests were gaining momentum. Citizens were becoming less fearful of the regime and increasingly daring in their demands for an end to martial rule. Young men in particular, with ample energy but few outlets for release, were attracted to the popular movement in the tens of thousands.
The regime needed to a swift end to this trend, but without spilling any blood. Their solution was ingenious: mass distraction.
The ‘3S’ policy involved sex, sports and screens. With the cynical view that many South Korean citizens were merely bored and would flock to glamorous entertainment over democracy marches, restrictions were loosened on adult-themed content. In fact, this conservative country’s leaders expressly encouraged risqué diversions: in movies, television, books and even comics. Sexually suggestive cinema became the norm. Television broadcasts were upgraded to colour, broadcast times were expanded and educational programming was replaced with racy fluff. The nightly curfew was also lifted, allowing people to party away their energy every evening.
A similar strategy was engineered using sport. In 1981, South Korea won the hosting rights for the Summer Olympics held later that decade. During the same year, a professional baseball league was launched, with the country’s wealthy business conglomerates ‘encouraged’ to establish and bankroll teams.
During this era, South Korean club football had been limited to amateur or semi-pro works teams. But in 1983, the country’s first professional football competition was established: the K League. Arguably Asia’s first pro football league, it began with only a handful of clubs.
Two decades later, in 2003, the K League celebrated its 21st season and hoped to build upon the excitement of South Korea recently co-hosting the World Cup, where it miraculously advanced to the semi-finals.
It had been simple and achievable in the past. Something so expected, so routine for Busan during their first 17 years in the K League. The words ‘success’ and ‘Busan’ had been synonymous in Korean football for almost two decades; but now, the words verged on forming an oxymoron. Abruptly, seemingly overnight, success became elusive. Rot rapidly set in, threatening to topple this once-proud football club into obscurity.
Busan were founding members of the K League in 1983, the team initially known simply as ‘Daewoo’. Like most North East Asian football clubs created during that era, they were owned and funded by a wealthy business conglomerate – in this case, the Daewoo Group. Despite only having amateur status that first season, Daewoo performed well, finishing as league runners-up. In the subsequent close season, the club embraced professionalism and expanded their name to Daewoo Royals. The gambit to convert the squad to full-time paid off immediately as the club concluded the 1984 season as Korean champions.
Triumph became the norm for Daewoo Royals. Over the next several seasons, the Busan club won two additional K League titles as well as its most prestigious accomplishments: the 1986 Asian Club Championship (since renamed the AFC Champions League) and the inaugural Afro-Asian Club Championship. That same year, Busan also had a player invited to participate in a FIFA World Stars vs. Americas XI friendly.
In 1997, under the elongated moniker Busan Daewoo Royals, the club achieved a domestic treble, winning its fourth K League title and two league cups. Busan were drawing some of the largest crowds and revelled in what would later be perceived as the club’s glory days.
But the 1990s weren’t all fun and games for football in Busan, As the city’s only professional club came precariously close to being shut down. South Korea, and much of East Asia, was battered by an unprecedented financial crisis in the late 1990s. The country’s large business conglomerates, which owned and bankrolled most K League clubs, teetered on the brink of fiscal collapse. And indeed, one corporate giant did crumble: the Daewoo Group, South Korea’s second largest conglomerate.
With the equivalent of US$80bn in debts, Daewoo’s demise marked perhaps the largest corporate bankruptcy in world history at the time. Its chairman, Kim Woo-jung, left his wife behind and fled abroad to avoid arrest on an array of potential charges, including embezzlement and accounting fraud. Interpol put out a half-hearted appeal for Kim’s arrest, although the lack of a suspect profile on Interpol’s website suggested the South Korean government preferred Kim to remain in exile. Daewoo workers responded to their abandonment by burning Kim in effigy and plastering ‘wanted’ posters featuring their former chairman.
The calamity left Busan Daewoo Royals in an existential lurch. Without a major benefactor to bleed money to the football club, its existence was in jeopardy.
In response, South Korea’s footballing powers twisted the arm of Hyundai – the nation’s largest conglomerate – to save the club from extinction by assuming ownership. As Hyundai had just been forced by the government to split into numerous separate entities, financial responsibility for the football club would be shouldered only by one Hyundai subsidiary. The (un)lucky recipient was Hyundai Development Company (HDC), the conglomerate’s real estate and construction group. Whether they liked it or not, as of the 2000 K League season, HDC would be required to hand over billions of Korean won every year to a sporting endeavour that had nothing to do with land development and offered little if any return on investment.
Even worse, as Hyundai needed to improve its finances, HDC was instructed to increase its profit margin – despite just being saddled with the cost of bankrolling Busan’s professional football club. Newly adopted Busan instantly became the red-headed stepchild of Hyundai’s stable of sports teams.
No longer under Daewoo ownership, the club was rechristened ‘Busan I’cons’, the new moniker a portmanteau of the words ‘I’Park’ (a brand of apartments built by HDC) and ‘construction’ blended together. Creative genius.
Busan I’cons immediately stumbled under HDC tutelage. By 2002, results had plummeted to disastrous levels. The former success of the ’80s and ’90s was but a distant memory. The club had fallen into a new era in its history: as a skint team that now struggled to compete with opponents from much smaller cities. Busan had reached an unprecedented low, with little hope evident for its beleaguered future.
This was the sombre scenario ahead of Busan’s 2003 K League season. Club officials attempted to put a positive spin on matters before the year began, highlighting the team’s move to the brand-new Asiad World Cup Stadium. It was portrayed as a symbol of rebirth, hope, ambition, glory – that better things were in store for Busan.
Busan manager Ian Porterfield throws his hands up in exasperation as if motioning ‘I told you so!’ to the players looking meekly back at the dugout.
Exactly what magic is Porterfield expected to weave with this Busan squad? His FA Cup-winning goal with Sunderland had been a moment of wonder, but surely even he isn’t capable of the calibre of sorcery required to make a contender out of this group.
Or is he?
During his previous playing career, Porterfield permanently etched himself in Sunderland football folklore when he scored the only goal in the 1973 FA Cup Final. It was a remarkable victory for the second-tier Wearsiders, at the expense of a Leeds United side that dominated English football and competed in Europe. More than 40 years had passed since a club from the Second Division lifted the FA Cup, and many had already consigned such fairy-tale shocks to a bygone era. But with a single boot of a ball, Porterfield orchestrated one of the most unexpected results in the history of English club football, garnering him legendary status in Sunderland that continues to this day.
After hanging up his boots, Porterfield transitioned into management. His first role was at Rotherham United, where he quickly guided the club to the Third Division championship in 1981.
At the end of that season, league opponents and neighbouring rivals Sheffield United went in the opposite direction, as the former top-flight club was relegated to the Fourth Division. Desperate to stop the rot, Sheffield convinced Porterfield to drop two tiers to take over as their manager, a challenge he proved successful at. The Scotsman took the Yorkshire club up two levels, and his final season with the Blades saw them finish in seventh place in the Second Division.
As a young manager who had secured three promotions in a span of just four seasons, Porterfield was in demand. So when renascent Scottish club Aberdeen lost manager Alex Ferguson to Manchester United, the Dons came knocking for Porterfield. He didn’t fare too badly at the Dons, losing only nine of 71 matches in a spell that saw the club reach a Scottish League Cup final and qualify twice for the UEFA Cup. Porterfield’s win percentage remains in the top-five of Aberdeen’s all-time managers.
Next up was a 15-month stint as an assistant at Chelsea. The players there enjoyed Porterfield’s coaching, and the London side went on to win the Second Division title in 1989 with a whopping 99 points, climbing back up to the top flight where they have remained ever since.
Invited back to the London club in 1991, this time as manager, Porterfield’s first season in charge was highlighted by the Londoners earning their first win at Liverpool in 56 years. The following season, Chelsea climbed to fourth in the inaugural Premier League table by December and advanced to the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time in a decade.
It was at this point that the Scottish manager’s career would take a distinctly cosmopolitan turn.
Just two months after Porterfield left Chelsea, the African country of Zambia was struck by tragedy. A military airplane carrying its men’s national team to a 1994 World Cup qualifier crashed, killing everyone on board. In response, the British government hired Porterfield to rebuild the team. Porterfield was initially wary but came to relish the challenge, his first opportunity to manage a national squad. He took the country to within one point of qualifying for the World Cup, and then to the finals of the African Cup, both within a year of the air disaster. The team rose to an unprecedented 18th in international rankings, and Porterfield was bestowed with the Freedom of Zambia by the country’s government.
The Scot would later move to the Caribbean to manage Joe Public FC in Trinidad. Just three months into that assignment, before the season had even started, the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association poached Porterfield to manage its national team. He initially did very well, winning over the Caribbean players with his laid-back attitude. Trinidad finished above favourites Mexico to win their group in the penultimate round of CONCACAF’s 2002 World Cup qualifying – leaping to an all-time high of 24th in world rankings – and lifted the 2001 Caribbean Cup.
With Porterfield once again available for hire in late 2002, job offers poured in from clubs scattered across the globe. One was from Kaizer Chiefs, the most successful club in South Africa. But Porterfield’s journeyman ways led him to a new part of the world: East Asia. The struggling Busan I’cons had found their glamorous foreign manager, one whose 24-year management CV boasted leading Chelsea in the Premier League and numerous international exploits. Surely it was simply a matter of time before Porterfield would have the Korean club back to its rightful place, scrapping with the K League’s best – and perhaps even the giants of Asian club football – for silverware and success.
A male in his twenties stands at the front of the red-clad Pride of Pusan (or ‘POP’ for short), the official supporters club of Busan I’cons. With his back turned to the match action, he faces his fellow POP members and fixes his attention entirely upon them. Lifting a plastic megaphone to his mouth and raising his other arm in dramatic anticipation, he barks out the first word of a chant. Almost immediately, the entire group is singing along with alacrity. They all know the lyrics. When the leader sings, each POP member dutifully joins in with tremendous eagerness.
Is the megaphone meant as a symbolic crown, tangibly asserting the authority of the leader? He seamlessly shifts into another song, as do the rest of the devoted POP members. They stand under a home-made banner fluttering from the upper tier of the stadium that reads, ‘Always be on the top!’ – which presumably refers to where they want Busan I’cons to ascend in the K League table, rather than an unabashed admission of boudoir preference.
Perhaps most interesting is the lack of spontaneity. Of course the odd person will let out a word of encouragement on their own initiative when it looks as if Busan might score, and the occasional expletive is quietly muttered under someone’s breath when a chance is squandered. But there’s only one person leading chants for the entire 90 minutes: the man with the mighty megaphone. And while the concept of a head supporter leading songs can also be found in European and South American football, the precision and compliance from this group’s members is startling. The experience is the polar opposite of UK stadium culture.
The Pride of Pusan members tie football scarves – or ‘mufflers’ as they call them – around their wrists, made of thin, breathable material suited to Korea’s warmer climate and summer-based league, and madly wave their arms around in rhythmic circles.
Just then, a pivotal moment of the match. Busan score. Busan score!
It’s time to celebrate. The Pride of Pusan’s two drummers hammer away furiously while the rest of the hardcore assemble closely together into two tightly packed rows, arms embraced around each other’s shoulders. The supporters bow several times in unison. From there, with arms and shoulders interlinked, they begin to bounce together in celebratory unison – long before ‘the Poznań’ had become a familiar sight in British stadiums. One row joyfully hops to the left, the other to the right. With gleeful smiles on their faces, the two lines bounce in opposite directions, spilling into the surrounding sections with amusing effect. Then, without missing a beat, the two sideways conga lines switch directions and merrily jump back toward each other.
The curious performance continues back and forth several times, and finishes as it began with another series of collective bows. The Busan supporters, some of whom are strangers except for the replica shirts they share on matchdays, break free from each other’s grasp and offer a slight bow to their immediate neighbours. Giggles fill the air. Everyone has a silly smirk on their face; the group now shares a greater bond.
And then: the unthinkable. They all break out in a spontaneous, self-congratulatory yet self-deprecating round of applause.
Perhaps Korean football supporters aren’t so different from their Western counterparts after all.