The K-League club with a ski jump for a stadium

The K-League club with a ski jump for a stadium

As featured on Guardian Sport

IN A WORLD OF IDENTIKIT PREFABRICATED STADIA, where a club’s identity has been sold in order to make room for a wedding hall and conference centre, there is a certain romance in stadiums that are a bit different.

Who can forget Braga’s Estadio Municipal, its rockface behind the goal more memorable than any one game in Euro 2004? Or the nine arches of AS Monaco’s Stade Louis II, which offer a glimpse of the Mediterranean to add to the glamour of a Champions’ League match? Even something as simple as a statue of the King of Pop can give a ground a talking point, if not always for the right reasons.

Around the world, there are plenty of other unique and exotic stadia, from a floating stadium in Singapore to a runway behind the goal in Gibraltar. This season sees a new contender for the world’s strangest football stadium: the Alpensia Ski Jump Stadium in South Korea.

Nestled high in the Taebaek mountain range that runs down the east coast of South Korea, the Alpensia Ski Jump stadium was built for the upcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Conveniently, the landing area for the ski jumpers happens to be around the same dimensions as a football pitch. Local officials put two and two together and decided that with Korea’s football season running from March to late November, and Korea’s skiing season running from November to March, the 11,000-seater stadium could serve both purposes. 

The result of this is that while the stand at one end of the pitch holds the diehard drum-and-flag-wielding home supporters, the other end is overshadowed by two huge ski jumps, the bases of which reach the edge of the turf just behind the goal, acting like a giant playground slide, or perhaps a convenient ball retrieval system for the many stray long-range shots that define Korean football.

Ever since their formation in 2008, geography has forced Gangwon FC to lead a nomadic existence. Gangwon’s one and a half million inhabitants are spread thinly around the mountainous province, and as none of its principal cities are large enough to support a top flight side on their own, the team play some games in the east coast cities of Sokcho and Gangneung, and some in the central cities of Chuncheon and Wonju. 

They added a fifth venue to their portfolio last summer, playing a few games at the Alpensia Ski Jump Stadium, in what seemed to be a one-off at the time; by the end of the season, they had returned to their usual home pitch in coastal Gangneung.

Last season, after spending several years in the wilderness of Korea’s second tier, they finally earned promotion back to the top-flight via the playoffs. This led to a winter spending spree, during which the club brought in several well-known domestic players including striker Lee Keun-ho, who scored for Korea against Russia in the 2014 Brazil World Cup. While their winter acquisitions have led many followers of the K-League to expect them to be high-up in the table come the season’s end, the only sure thing is they will be high up in the mountains for their home games in the meantime.

While playing in such a unique stadium has some novelty value at first, and certainly makes the club stand out, it is not without its drawbacks. Not least, the fact that, like most ski resorts, Alpensia is in the middle of nowhere. Pyeongchang County, where the resort is located, has less than 50,000 residents, and most of those live on the far side of the county from the resort.

Visiting fans that don’t wish to drive or take the official supporter’s coach have no other option but to take a bus to the ski resort on the other side of the mountain. They might find one or two restaurants there, but not much else. Fans that do make the arduous trek to the stadium are rewarded by having to pay the highest ticket prices in Korea.

Even so, over 5,000 fans made the trip halfway up the mountain for Gangwon’s first home game of the season. The end opposite the ski jumps was packed with the orange shirts and scarves of Gangwon supporters, some fans were even dressed up in bright orange pigtails and enjoying the party atmosphere of their side’s match against Korean champions FC Seoul.

Unfortunately, the match itself was a scrappy and disappointing affair. Although FC Seoul’s football this season has been far from free-flowing, the main reason why this particular game was lacking in quality was the appalling state of the pitch. Just 23 days before FC Seoul’s Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanović was netting the only goal of the game with a low strike from just outside the area, Polish jumper Maciej Kot was flying through the air to record jumps of 108.5m and 110.5m in the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup.

In between these two events, huge amounts of snow and ice had to be cleared from the pitch, some of which was piled up in a dull grey heap at the base of the ski jump ramps behind the goal. The turf then had to be quickly laid and was in such a poor condition at the time of Gangwon’s first game that it more closely resembled a sandpit than a football pitch.

With fans having to travel halfway up a mountain and fork out more than usual on tickets and on transportation costs, only to watch a game played on an appalling surface that is not worthy of the word ‘turf’, it won’t be long before the thrill of playing at a pitch with a ski jump behind the goal starts to wear off. 

The bureaucrats who dreamed up such a move will no doubt be commended for their out-of-the-box thinking, and for their ability to find a use for the ski jumping arena in the off season, but at the same time, Gangwon FC have not just one perfectly functional stadium that they could use, but four stadiums. There probably isn’t another club on the planet with more home grounds than Gangwon, and yet rather than using any one of their four stadiums, all of which are located in placed where people actually live, officials chose the least convenient option for every single fan of the club. Talk about ignoring your fan base.

With the huge amounts of money spent on hosting the Olympics, the word ‘legacy’ is often mentioned as a way of justifying the vast splashing of cash that could be used on healthcare or education rather than a giant corporate party. Brazilians were quite right to protest their government’s questionable Olympic spending, not least with the images that came out recently, showing dilapidated arenas and stagnant pools just months after the main event.

It is not unsurprising, then, that with Gangwon’s Ski Jump Stadium, just like with the Olympic Stadium in London, officials want to show that the money spent has some kind of long-term benefit. In London’s case, a lack of plans for the future of the stadium led to money from the public purse being spent in order to make the venue suitable for football before West Ham United could move in. In Gangwon’s case, fans are being asked to spend their own time and money in order to give the stadium a purpose when there isn’t any snow around. They are being asked to paint a white elephant grey, but wouldn’t it be better if people stopped building white elephants in the first place?

This is not the first time that football fans in Korea have been inconvenienced in order to give a purpose to a useless stadium in the countryside. In 2011, despite seeing all of the other huge, empty and unprofitable stadiums around Korea, the city of Hwaseong, about an hour south of Seoul, built a $175 million, 35,000-seater stadium that looks like an alien spaceship plonked in the middle of a field. The city’s local football team play in the Korean fourth tier and are lucky to get a hundred people to their matches.

Not to be outdone, the neighbouring city of Yongin built a similar showpiece stadium themselves. Neither stadium serves any local purpose whatsoever. The only way that the KFA can find a use for them is to force the national team to play some games there every now and then, and force supporters to trek out to these monstrosities to watch their country take on Laos or Lebanon.

While the legacy of the Olympics is a pain for local football fans, at least fans of Gangwon FC have a nice backdrop of mountains and forests to look at. It doesn’t make up for the poor football on the pitch, but at least it’s something.

By Steve Price @kleaguefootball

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