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Saturday, September 1, 2012
Divide and conquer

John Duerden

Miracle. That was the word used as soon as the final whistle sounded on Sunday evening, in the newspapers in South Korea on Monday morning, and even on the club's official website. Sweat-drenched players alternated between hugging each other, throwing their coach in the air and just dancing in delight. The club called it a historic moment and have prepared a special shirt to be used from next month. And what did Gyeongnam FC actually do? They won a game to move from tenth in the K-League to eighth. Miraculous may be taking things a little too far but it was certainly dramatic. This was no normal game; it was the footballing equivalent of scrambling on board the last helicopter leaving Saigon. The K-League was splitting in half two-thirds of the way through the season for the first time. From now until December, the top eight will play each other twice with the championship at stake while the bottom half scrap to avoid the trapdoor, the first time relegation has come to Korean football. If it all sounds similar to the Scottish Premier League then there is a good reason. A delegation from the K-League visited Scotland in September 2011 to learn about splitting. It was a successful trip. Korean officials, delighted at the warmth of their reception, were already minded to follow the Scottish example and from their conversations with local officials, they heard nothing to change their mind. Asian parties don't often head to Glasgow on fact-finding missions but it was a conscious decision to learn from what were termed 'second-level leagues' and not have heads turned by the glitz and the glamour of the Premier League or La Liga. Glasgow, Amsterdam and Tokyo were the destinations - Scotland for the system, the Netherlands for the development and Japan for the organisation. The catalyst for this activity came from the K-League's match-fixing scandal of 2011. With over 60 players and coaches implicated in the outbreak, the whole country was stunned. And there are ripples of aftershocks still felt from time to time. As well as a number of suicides related to the episode, this week there was a prison sentence for one of the biggest names involved in the whole affair, Kim Dong-Hyun. The former national team striker, banned from football and unable to find work since the scandal broke, will spend three years behind bars for attempted kidnapping. Such stories are especially distressing for the league officials. They have been working behind the scenes to try and help those players who have thrown their football careers away to try and prepare for the future. In that summer of 2011, amid the revelations, the suicides and government threats to shut down the competition if something was not done, K-League officials saw an opportunity to seriously redesign Asia's oldest professional league. If it had been professional by name, it was felt it was not professional enough by nature. A recent expansion to 16 teams had made everyone feel good but a stadium and a bit of money do not a professional club make. Some lagged way behind others off the pitch even when they were performing on it and, with Korean teams easily the most successful in Asian club competitions, some were performing very well. K-League officials were becoming increasingly frustrated with how a number of its members were run. With many clubs owned by big businesses, it was perhaps not surprising that they were often operated as an extension of that business and not as viable football clubs, something reflected in falling attendances. A smaller, tighter top flight with strict operating criteria that clubs had to meet - in terms of marketing, administration, community activities, operation and finance - was the idea. Relegation has been introduced for the first time. The 16-team competition will be cut to 12 by 2014. Four were originally earmarked for the drop this season but clubs were not happy with that. Understandably so, after never having to consider the prospect of relegation, the thought of one in four getting the chop was a little dizzying. The KFA had argued that such a cull was the best way -a short and very sharp shock meaning that the focus of the league and the association could be switched almost entirely to ensuring that the second tier became as strong as possible as quickly as possible, a process seen as the real test. In the end, the K-League won this battle and two teams will be relegated over the next two seasons with promotion then kicking in from 2014. The introduction of the split could have waited until then. Scotland has 12 teams in the top tier and the system provides a way to play 38 games. Korea has done it differently. Despite the fact that there are still 16 teams in 2012, the introduction of the split has meant that this is a season of 44 games. With clubs battling in the Asian Champions League and the national team aiming to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, there are worries that it is all too much. The K-League doesn't disagree but the thinking was that in terms of symbolism and momentum, it was a process that had to be started as soon as possible. It started last Sunday, and went well with four teams battling for the final top-half spot, which was eventually taken by Gyeongnam. It also went down well with the football media though it is debatable if the excitement was shared by the general public in a season that has seen baseball increasingly overshadow its rival sport in terms of media attention, attendances and television airtime. One K-League official said that it had been a festival but added ruefully that it had been a "festival for ourselves". Fans will get a clearer picture at the end of the season - and there is talk of inviting the Scottish Premier League chief executive to the final round of games so he can see for himself  but the real journey will take much longer and a lot of hard work. There are hopes in the K-League that it will end with Korean teams performing as well off the pitch as they do on it. That wouldn't exactly be a miracle but it would be something really worth celebrating.

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