Asian Soccer League
Guangzhou Evergrande defender Kim Young-gwon, right, at the FIFA Club World Cup this month. Kim was a starter for the South Korean World Cup team in 2014 and is seen as a player who could soon move to a top European league.
Kiyoshi Ota/European Pressphoto Agency
But the last title came in 2012, and a new end-of-season tradition is developing in its place. As soon as the last ball has been kicked, K-League clubs are becoming increasingly accustomed to dealing with wealthy Chinese rivals on the hunt for new players.
South Korean clubs are unable to compete financially with their newly rich counterparts in China. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, owned by the property developers Evergrande and the founder of Alibaba, one of China’s biggest e-commerce companies, started the spending in 2010. Since then the club has invested over $150 million on players and coaches. The reward has been five consecutive domestic titles and, on Nov. 21, the team, led by 2002 World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, won its second Asian Champions League title in three years.
Encouraged by a government that wants to see China start punching its weight after years of underachievement in the global game, other investors have become involved in Chinese teams and are spending big in a bid to catch the dominant Guangzhou franchise. Recruiting from the K-League has proved to be an easy way to start.
Chinese clubs can sign a maximum of five foreign players, though one must be Asian. In 2015, of the 15 out of 16 teams that filled their so-called “Asian quota, ” eight had South Korean players. Guangzhou has the center back Kim Young-gwon, Shanghai S.I.P.G. signed another central defender in Kim Ju-young and Beijing Guoan has midfielder Ha Dae-sung.
More are set to follow. As soon as the 2015 K-League season finished, newly promoted Yanbian signed young Korean internationals Kim Seung-dae from Pohang Steelers and Yoon Bitgaram from Jeju United.
“When it comes to Asian players, Koreans are the best in terms of price, and Chinese clubs can offer them much higher salaries than they were getting before, ” said Luo Ming, deputy editor of Titan Sports Weekly in Beijing. “Korean clubs always play well in the Asian Champions League. The Chinese league is more physical than technical, and Korean players have more stamina than Chinese players.”
It is not just Koreans. Chinese teams are increasingly buying foreign players who have already succeeded in the K-League. “If they are foreign then they have already shown they can adapt to East Asia and they present much less of a risk for Chinese clubs, ” said Lee.
In the summer of 2015, Hebei, then a second-tier team in China, bid so much money to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors F.C. for its Brazilian striker Eduardo, that the Korean champion was unable to refuse. Here was an Asian soccer powerhouse backed by Hyundai Motors — the conglomerate owners of Korean teams have been reducing financial support in recent years — unable to keep one of its most important players in the face of interest from a second division and almost unheard of Chinese team.
Dejan Damjanovic is the record goal scorer in the K-League and was F.C. Seoul’s biggest star in 2013, when he moved to Beijing Guoan. Damjanovic, a member of the Montenegro national team, finished the 2015 season as the third highest goal scorer in the Chinese Super League. Now 34 and interested in a return to Korea, K-League clubs struggled to match even half his salary.
“To be honest China pays much better, and the chance for me to earn for my family was there, it was my chance, ” said Damjanovic. “I still think that Korean players are tougher than the Chinese, and that is the main reason why Korean teams are still competitive with Chinese teams in the Asian Champions League.”
As yet, Chinese teams have been less interested in Japanese players. “Japan’s attacking players are better than their defenders, but Chinese clubs buy attacking players from South America or Africa.” explained Luo. “Korean defenders are more suitable for Chinese teams.” Luo also pointed out that political relations between the China and Japan make it more difficult.
While South Korean fans tend to be dismissive of Chinese soccer — in 30 meetings between the two national teams China has won once — the improving standards in the Chinese Super League mean the move is better both in soccer and financial terms than it once was. The central defender Kim Young-gwon has excelled at Guangzhou and is tipped for a move soon to the big leagues of Europe.
Damjanovic believes that in the short term, if Korean teams invest the money they are receiving from China on better foreign players, they will find it easier to win more Asian titles. “Korean players are still the best in Asia, and that is why they are popular with other countries. They are professional and tough. If they can improve their foreign players they will be O.K.”