The Ki Sung-yueng Saga and the FC Seoul Rollercoaster

Earlier today, FC Seoul announced the signing of Ki Sung-yueng in what is one of the biggest transfer coups in recent K League history. Seoul have been struggling mightily this season and they will be hopeful that the return of their former prodigy – more than a decade after he embarked on his European adventure – will give them a much-needed morale and performance boost.

FC Seoul have made headlines for all the wrong reasons thus far in 2020. First, there was the sex doll scandal – which was blown (no pun intended) way out of proportion in my humble opinion – that saw the club fined after mannequins adorned with branding from an adult-themed manufacturer were placed in the stands (socially distanced, of course) in an ill-fated attempt to replace human spectators. There were even suggestions in the Korean media that the club could face a points deduction or that they would be kicked out of their ground, Seoul World Cup Stadium, but that thankfully never materialized.

Then there are the performances on the pitch. Seoul find themselves second-bottom of the K1 table at the time of writing this, only ahead of Incheon United and level on points with rivals Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Luckily for the capital club, the season is still relatively young with only 12 of the 27 matchdays played and the relocation of military club Sangju Sangmu, who surprisingly sit in 3rd, to K2 and a different part of the country was announced before the start of the season, so only one team will get relegated based on merit – or lack thereof – this term.

Seoul have been awful this season, though. There’s no way of sugarcoating it; they have been pitiful. With 10 points from a possible 36, Seoul are on course to repeat their horrendous 2018 campaign where only the relegation play-off – which will most likely not be played this season barring a Brobdingnagian collapse from Sangju – saved them from dropping down to K2. The capital club has lost 7 of its last 9 league games and they travel to Jeonju on Sunday to face reigning champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who have endured a recent slump of their own and will be smelling blood.

Speaking of Jeonbuk, let’s circle back to the signing of Ki because it wasn’t a straightforward affair, on the contrary, it was a saga that dragged on for 6 months. Ki made his Seoul debut in March of 2007 and within a year became an important cog in their midfield, culminating in him leading his side to the two-legged K League final in 2008. A star-studded Seoul team that featured perennial top scorer Dejan Damjanović, who finished runner-up that season and who, at 38, recently scored for Daegu against Seoul, and another one of this season’s big-name returnees in Lee Chung-yong, who is now at Ulsan Hyundai after spending time in England and Germany, faced off against Suwon in the Super Match. The Bluewings ran out 2-1 victors at home in the second leg after a 1-1 draw in Seoul four days prior. (Fun fact: both games were refereed by Bundesliga officials – a tradition in Asian football to counter allegations of match-fixing – with Peter Gagelmann taking charge of the first leg and Felix Brych of the second leg)

Ki playing in the AFC Champions League in 2009 (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

A year later, Ki finally made his highly anticipated move to Europe, signing for Celtic amid interest from PSV, HSV, and reigning Portuguese champions Porto; although signed in August, he only joined up with his new team in the January transfer window of 2010. After spells with Swansea, Sunderland, and Newcastle in the Premier League it seemed as though his time in Europe was up when he terminated his contract with the Magpies by mutual consent at the end of January. Jeonbuk were rumored to be interested, so too were clubs from the Arabian Penninsula, China, MLS, and some even floated the idea of a transfer to the A-League. Having won three consecutive league titles, Jeonbuk appeared to be the only Korean club who could realistically pay Ki’s wages but a clause inserted in his contract when he left Seoul meant that any K League club trying to acquire the 31-year-old would have to pay Seoul a reported fee of $2m in addition to his salary rumored to be around $1m. Jeonbuk pulled out of the deal, Seoul couldn’t come to an agreement with Ki’s people and ultimately he duped everybody by signing for LaLiga side Mallorca on a short-term deal despite being heavily linked with Segunda División side Huesca. Ironically, the two will be trading places next season with the former relegated and the latter promoted as champions.

That will be of little concern to Ki, though, as he has now been officially unveiled as a Seoul player. Jeonbuk were once again bidding for his services, but Seoul, financially buoyed by the return of loanee Aleksandar Pesic to parent club Al-Ittihad, finally managed to make a satisfactory offer. What does this mean in the short and long term? Well, it will certainly be a big boost for the capital club this season in their effort to stay up and it wouldn’t come as a shock to see him being handed the captaincy, after all, he is the former captain of the national team. There is some concern, however, as Ki has only made five appearances throughout the whole of the 19/20 season, featuring in just a meager 8 minutes for Mallorca.

Hopefully, this move will also mend the seemingly broken relationship between Ki and Seoul. The midfielder heavily criticized his former, now-new team after the initial plans to return home fell through, saying that he didn’t feel Seoul wanted him enough and later putting out a statement on Instagram with the message “stop playing with me” in the wake of the contract clause blocking a move to Jeonbuk.

In the long-term, this transfer, and the return of the Blue Dragon, Lee Chung-yong, could incentivize more Koreans to make their way back home. It’s been a welcome trend in recent transfer windows to see big-name Asian players signing for clubs in their native countries. Qatar international Akram Afif, one of West Asia’s biggest stars, recently signed a five-year deal with Xavi’s Al-Sadd and in Japan, Gen Shoji, Takashi Usami, and Yosuke Ideguchi have all signed for Gamba Osaka after stints in Europe.

It remains to be seen whether Ki’s move to the 6-time K League champions will bear fruit, but on paper, it should revitalize the reeling side and it could go a long way towards them realizing the potential they showed with their 3rd place finish last season. This is undoubtedly one of the most major transfer stories in recent K League – Asian, even – history.

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