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(Yonhap Feature) Newly promoted Gangwon FC's shopping spree raises hopes, concerns

All Headlines 09:00 January 09, 2017

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, Jan. 9 (Yonhap) -- Surprise after surprise.

No one has yet to see their performance in 2017, but South Korean football club Gangwon FC has been delivering bombshells day after day since December.

With a series of high-profile signings, the newly promoted Gangwon are making a splash in the top-tier South Korean pro football league, where they will make a return for the first time in four years. However, there are also concerns whether their offseason shopping spree can bear fruit in the end.

Gangwon finished fourth in the second division K League Challenge last year, but they earned their spot in the top flight K League Classic after winning the promotion playoff against Seongnam FC in November. Soon after they earned the promotion, Gangwon started signing one player after another to send shockwaves through football.

In this file photo taken on Nov. 20, 2016, Gangwon FC players celebrate at Tancheon Sports Complex in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, after the club edged Seongnam FC to earn a promotion to the first-tier K League Classic for the 2017 season. (Yonhap)

Gangwon kicked off their spree on Dec. 9 by signing the former Asian Footballer of the Year Lee Keun-ho. The 32-year-old forward, who also scored a goal against Russia at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, inked a three-year deal to complete his move from Jeju United.

Lee was followed by other local big names such as defender Oh Beom-seok, a national team veteran; goalkeeper Lee Bum-young, a key member of the Olympic bronze medal squad in 2012; winger Kim Kyung-joong, who previously played with French teams like Girondin Bordeaux and SM Caen; and midfielder Hwang Jin-sung, a two-time K League Classic winner who has played 291 matches in the league.

Gangwon's recruitment reached the pinnacle when they brought in striker Jung Jo-gook, the reigning MVP and scoring champion who netted 20 goals for Gwangju FC in the past season.

Jung, 32, was originally considering a move to Japanese side Yokohama F. Marinos, but just like the other Gangwon recruits, he was drawn to the club's ambitions. For the 2017 season, Gangwon said they aim to finish inside the top three in the league and grab a ticket to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League in 2018.

"I was attracted by Gangwon's vision," Jung said. "After looking into Gangwon's recent signings, I thought that going to the AFC Champions League is not an impossible task."

As of last Friday, Gangwon have so far signed 11 new players. Though Gangwon's winter signings have mostly targeted veterans who could help the team immediately, some are young players who can stick around for the future.

They are midfielder Moon Chang-jin and defender Park Sun-ju, who both moved from the Pohang Steelers. Moon, 23, represented South Korea at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Summer Games, while Park, 24, also played for the under-20 and under-23 national teams.

Gangwon's signings also included coaching staff. Last week they hired former Jeonnam Dragons head coach Song Kyung-sub as their head scout.

Gangwon FC forwards Jung Jo-gook (L) and Lee Keun-ho salute the national flag during Gangwon's kickoff meeting for the 2017 season at a hotel in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Jan. 5, 2017. (Yonhap)

The man behind Gangwon's shopping extravaganza is Cho Tae-ryong, the president of the club.

Cho joined Gangwon last year after working as general manager of South Korean baseball club Nexen Heroes for eight years. Unlike other clubs in the Korea Baseball Organization, the Heroes are not run by conglomerates, meaning that the Seoul-based club needs to find its own revenue sources.

The situation is nearly the same at Gangwon. Although the club is funded by the Gangwon Provincial Government, it is still considered a "poor club" compared to teams like Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors owned by South Korea's top automaker Hyundai Motors and FC Seoul run by South Korean conglomerate GS Group.

Cho said he is fully aware of concerns about the club's financial health over its recent shopping spree. Gangwon spent more than 6 billion won (US$5 million) last year, 2.2 billion won of which was used to cover the players' salaries. But considering that their new recruit Lee Keun-ho received more than 800 million won in 2016, the club's payroll is expected to quadruple.

Doubts were especially raised when Gangwon's sponsorship deal with Kangwon Land, the domestic casino complex in Gangwon Province, didn't work out in the club's favor. Gangwon were originally hoping to sell their naming rights to Kangwon Land for about 8 billion won, but the casino's board of directors last month decided to provide the club with only 2 billion won, the same amount as last year.

Cho previously said Gangwon aimed to secure 20 billion won for the 2017 season. Although there is still a long road ahead to reach its budget goal, the 52-year-old claimed there is no need to worry.

"Neither a delay in paying wages nor a financial breakdown will happen," Cho said. "You can't develop the club unless there's an investment."

In this photo provided by Gangwon FC, Cho Tae-ryong, Gangwon's general manager, speaks to players at a promotion celebration party at a hotel in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Dec. 14, 2016. (Yonhap)

Cho said he wants to bring "a new wave" to football and they've already undertaken bold marketing moves to raise money.

For the 2017 season, Gangwon said they will play their home matches at Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics lying some 180 kilometers east of Seoul.

When they played in the second-tier K League Challenge last season, Gangwon made their home at Gangneung Sports Complex in Gangneung, about 22 kilometers east of PyeongChang in the same province.

"We will provide various cultural content to home fans with the best sports facility," the club said in a release. "We will increase shuttle bus frequency to make Alpensia more accessible and add more convenient features for spectators."

Gangwon are also trying to ink deals with Vietnamese companies after signing the country's young star footballer Luong Xuan Truong. Though Cho said he wants the Vietnamese midfielder to help Gangwon earn the AFC Champions League spot, the club will also want Truong to attract Vietnamese fans here and bring in sponsorships.

"Vietnamese companies can use our pitch-side LED advertising to promote their businesses in South Korea," Gangwon said. "We are willing to help Vietnamese companies work with South Korean firms."

Gangwon said their marketing efforts are paying off. The club only sold 138 season tickets in 2016, but for the 2017 season, they've already sold more than 1,000 season tickets.

This photo, provided by Gangwondo Development Corp. on Sept. 4, 2016, shows the football pitch set up in the landing area of Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre. Pro football club Gangwon FC played four home matches there in 2016, and will play all home contests there in 2017. (Yonhap)

Pundits said Gangwon's aggressive offseason moves can inspire other K League clubs, but it still remains to be seen whether Gangwon's performance in 2017 will meet fans' high expectations.

"Gangwon brought in so many players at once, meaning that they have to deal with the team chemistry issue," said Hahn June-hea, a football commentator at local broadcaster KBS. "We will also have to watch whether Gangwon have the stamina to stay effective until the end of the season. Their best 11 players may be strong, but you can't play them for the entire season."

Gangwon head coach Choi Yun-kyum said he feels a heavy responsibility for the renovated team. The 54-year-old, who previously led Daejeon Citizen FC and Vietnamese club Hoang Anh Gia Lai, said he knows what he needs to do.

"If we do well, other clubs will also increase their investments," Choi said at the club's kickoff meeting for the 2017 season on last Thursday. "If we can build one united team, I'm sure we'll have good results in the end."

With a handful of proven assets now on the squad, Choi said he will try to impress fans with exciting performances. Gangwon, founded in 2008, have never finished inside the top 10 in the K League Classic.

"What's important is that I need to find the style of football that can maximize our players' talents," he said. "Since it's also critical to get fans' support, I will try to display aggressive football next season."

Gangwon FC players and coaching staff pose for a photo during their kickoff meeting for the 2017 season at a hotel in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Jan. 5, 2017. (Yonhap)

kdon@yna.co.kr
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