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The Very Large Boys of the K-League

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An outsider’s perspective on the K-League’s big chungus arms race

Kashima Antlers v Suwon Samsung Bluewings - AFC Champions League Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Well they are not alone! Through a series of YouTube Channels which go down faster than a Juan Guaido coup attempt I have watched ten of the twelve K-League first division teams play and I have noticed an interesting trend. The K league is a land ruled by absolute units from far away lands.

The K-League has very strict rules about foreign players. Teams have five roster spots for foreigners but one of those is reserved for players from other Asian countries (and also Australia) and one can only be used on players from ASEAN countries (southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.). Teams only have three spots which can be used for whatever internationals they want. Sagnju Sangmu is a club set up for Korean players to continue their careers while they do their mandatory two years of military service so by definition they don’t have any foreigners. This means there are just 33 unrestricted international spots available in the entire league. You would think teams would be very careful about how they use these spots and try to sign players who offered something they definitely couldn’t get from a domestic player. But the direction most teams seem to have gone in is to grab the first big chungus they could get their hands on. 8/33, or 24%, or 1 in 4, of these spots is being used on a striker who is at least 6’1. Two teams, Incheon and Ulsan, have two foreign strikers who are 6’0 plus, doubling down on the big guy strategy. In comparison only 3/13 of western conference MLS teams have fielded a foreign striker who was over 6’0 so far in 2020, despite having much more lax restrictions on foreigners.

It can be very tempting to reach for the stereotype of Asian people being shorter and slighter on average. If you accepted that then you might say that Korean teams go for tall foreign strikers to take advantage of smaller Korean defenders. But I haven’t been able to find any data that shows any particularly big difference between the average height of a man in Canada and Korea. Plus these are professional athletes so they are going to be bigger, stronger and fitter than the average population of their country in any case. So I don’t accept Koreans being smaller as the reason for this (or as a thing that’s true in general, really).

The huge percentage of international slots being used on target men naturally leads one to ask whether or not getting in behemoth strikers is an effective strategy. Let us look at the eight burly men leading the lines of K1 attacks and see if they are any good.


Name: Dejan Damjanovic

Team: Daegu F.C

Height: 6’1

K-League Stats: 124 goals in 245 games.

Profile:

Dejan Damjanovic, aged 38, is on his third K league team. Throughout his time in Korea he has been extremely effective. Last season while playing for Suwon Bluewings he failed to hit double digit goals for the first time since 2008 (a season in which he only made 3 appearances). But time comes for us all and it remains to be seen if Damjanovic still has it or if last season was a sign he’s starting to decline. He seems like a bit of a risk to use an international slot on in the present day but there is no denying he has been effective in the past. Daegu F.C get some points for creativity by having the very exciting Cesinha as one of their other internationals.


Name: Stefan Mugosa

Team: Incheon United

Height: 6’2

K-League Stats: 29 goals in 58 games

Profile:

After being an extremely mediocre Bundesliga 2 player, Mugosa has had a very effective start to life in the K-League, scoring 16 and 13 in goals in 2018 and 2019 respectively. I think it’s fair to say he is good.


Name: Lanre Kehinde

Team: Incheon United

Height: 6’3

K League Stats: Yet to score a regular season goal after 12 games

Profile:

Kehinde seems like a very odd signing. For starters Incheon already had a big guy in Mugosa. I’m trying to imagine the meeting where they decided to sign him.

Guy 1: Ok we have an open international slot so let’s use it to address some of our weaknesses.

Guy 2: We should get a really big striker.

Guy 1: But sir, we already have one.

Guy 2: But what if we got a bigger one?

Guy 1: I’m not sure that’s the best...

Guy 2 (slamming his fists on his desk): Bigger!

Kehinde had a very unimpressive time in Israel followed by a solid but not amazing stint in Turkey. He has no goals in the K league regular season yet. He does do a lot of work defensively and in holding the ball up but you want your striker to score eventually. What can I say? He’s an odd one.


Name: Junior Negão (or maybe Negrão? I’ve seen it spelled both ways)

Team: Ulsan Hyundai

Height: 6’1

K-League Stats: 47 goals in 70 games

Profile:

The week one MVP, Junior will be looking to hit double digits in the K-League for the fourth season in a row (what’s one more than a threepeat? a Quadpeat?). I think it’s fair to say he’s good. Notably at 185 pounds he’s one of the thickest of the very large K-League sons.


Name: Bjorn Johnsen

Team: Ulsan Hyundai

Height: 6’4

K-League Stats: New signing, has only played 11 minutes so far.

Profile:

Ulsan clearly saw what Incheon were up two and said to themselves “nobody’s going out chungus us!” and became the second team to have two of their international slots be taken up by big lads. It’s especially weird in this case as Ulsan play with only one striker, so they can’t even put both of their giants out at the same time unless they make some tactical adjustments. You might say he is a succession plan for Junior but he’s 28 so it’s not like he’s a young up and comer. It’s far too early to tell if Johnsen will be a success or not. Throughout his career he has been a very okay striker in Portugual, Scotland, The Netherlands, Bulgaria, and Norway. He doesn’t exactly jump off the page but if he follows the same path as Mugosa he could be good (if he ever gets on the pitch that is).


Name: Felipe Silva

Team: Gwangju F.C

Height: 6’4

K-League Stats: Failed to score in his debut, 26 goals in 42 games in K-League 2

Profile:

At 6’3, 199 pounds, Felipe Silva is the second largest of the K-League heavyweight club. We don’t know how he will do in K-League 1 yet but you have to say he has been an effective signing as his goals helped Gwangju gain promotion.


Name: Gustavo Vintecinco

Team: Busan IPark

Height: 6’4

K-League Stats: Failed to score in his debut, 9 goals in 28 games in K-League 2

Profile:

At 6’4 207, Vintecinco is the K-league’s largest boy. As for his actual ability as a footballer, well, when you get the chance to use an international spot on a striker scoring 0.34 goals per 90 in the second division you’ve just got to do it I guess.


Name: Stanislav Iljutcenko

Team: Pohang Steelers

Height: 6’2

K-League Stats: 8 goals in 14 games

Profile:

Iljutcenko is a recent addition to the K-League but he’s off to a very hot start. I think 8 goals in 14 games is enough to achieve “good” status.


Conclusions:

Of these eight big fellas, three are definitely good, one has been good in the past but may be on the decline, two are unproven in the first division, one is made redundant by another player on his team, and one just seems to be kind of bad (and is also made redundant by another player on his team). There are some undeniable successes but some of these choices seem very strange if you only have three international slots.