Jeju United

제주 유나이티드 / Jeju United Football Club

Honours

  • Best League Finish: 1st in the K League 1 (1989)
  • Best Korean Cup Finish: Finalists (2004)
  • K League 1
    • Champions (1): 1989
  • K League 2
    • Champions (1): 2020
  • Korean FA Cup
    • Finalists (1): 2004
  • Korean League Cup
    • Winners (3): 1994, 1996, 2000

Jeju United Football Club / 제주 유나이티드 is a South Korean football team that currently plays in the K League 1, the top tier in the Korean football pyramid, and is considered one of the stronger teams within Korean football as they have finished in the top six in the past two K League 1 seasons since their promotion from K League 2 in 2020. The club comes from the city of Seogwipo / 서귀포시 (with a population of approximately 156k) situated on the southern half of the self-governing Korean island of Jeju, located 82.8 km / 51.4 mi south of the nearest point on the Korean peninsula. The island is famous for its Satsuma mandarins, with multiple farms taking advantage of the island’s humid climate to produce fruit for the mainland, whilst the climate also contributes to a large tourism industry with many holidaymakers from the peninsula visiting Jeju for warm weather holidays. Jeju United currently play in the 35,657-capacity Jeju World Cup Stadium which is situated on the southern outskirts of the city. The stadium was one of many built within the country for the 2002 World Cup which South Korea co-hosted, with the ground being completed in 2001. During the World Cup, the stadium hosted two group games, as well as the Round of 16 match between Germany and Paraguay (which Germany won 1-0).

The club was founded in 1982 as the Yukong Elephants, and became founding members of the K League in 1983. Their original name came from their owner Yukong (now called ‘SK Energy‘), which is a subsidiary company of the large power and chemical chaebol corporation Sunkyoung Group (now ‘SK Group‘). Originally, the franchise club represented the northwestern region of Seoul, Incheon, and Gyeonggi (later just representing just the latter two locations). During this period, the Elephants won the 1989 K League title. As a result of the K League’s decentralisation policy to move its clubs out of Seoul and spread across the country, the club reluctantly moved to the Seoul-satellite city of Bucheon and renamed itself to Bucheon SK in 1997.

The club would play in Bucheon for nine years before moving the franchise over to Jeju island, which had never been represented in the K League previously, and playing in the vacant Jeju World Cup Stadium, much to the local supporters’ disappointment (who would push for the eventual creation of K League side Bucheon FC 1995). As a result of their move to the southern island, the club changed its name to Jeju United and adopted its recognisable orange shirts, in honour of the island’s famous produce. Since their move away from the mainland, the club has achieved a couple of second-place finishes in both the 2010 and 2017 seasons. On both occasions, it meant the club qualified for the AFC Champions League (ACL), with the Tangerines reaching the Round of 16 in the 2017 campaign before agonisingly losing 2-3 on aggregate to Urawa Red Diamonds after extra time.

Surprisingly just two years after finishing as runners-up, the club suffered relegation for the first time in its history, ending their ever-presence in the top flight since the league’s foundation in 1983 when they finished bottom of the table in 2019. However, their K1 exile was a brief spell as Jeju won the 2020 K League 2 title to return back to K1 after a season’s hiatus. Since their return to the top flight, Jeju United have continuously finished in the top six, finishing in fourth position in 2021, and finishing in fifth position for the 2022 K1 season, narrowly missing out on qualifying for the ACL Playoff Round by just two points.

To talk about one of the strongest teams in Korean football who just missed out on AFC Champions League qualification this year, we spoke to the excellent Branko Belan. Branko is a Croatian who is based on the South Korean island of Jeju and supports Dinamo Zagreb and Jeju United. He regularly contributes to the English-language South Korean football website and podcast, K League United, often producing articles or talking about Jeju United (and other teams) and the Korean men’s national team. To read Branko’s superbly-written articles, you can find the KLU website link, as well as his social media channels at the links below:

Q. Who would you say is Jeju United’s best player, and coach/manager of all-time, and the reasonings behind the choices?

Koo Ja-cheol

The best player in club history for me would be Koo Ja-cheol [33-year-old midfielder with 76 caps and 19 goals for South Korea]. While he didn’t make much of an impression in his first two seasons after being drafted because of injuries, he will always be remembered at the club for what he achieved in the 2010 season, when the Tangerines finished runners-up in the league and he led the league in assists and was named to the Best XI for that season.

He’d go on to a solid career in Europe where he became a fixture in the Bundesliga for a long time, playing for VfL Wolfsburg, FC Augsburg, and Mainz 05, before heading to the Middle East where he had stints with Al-Gharafa and Al-Khor before coming back to Jeju for the 2022 season. The football team is the only professional club on the island, so for a former Korean international to get a professional career and managed to start here, it is a matter of pride for the fans of the club.

Nam Ki-il

As for the favourite manager, it’s a bit of a toss-up between current manager Nam Ki-il and Jo Sung-hwan. Nam Ki-il won the club’s first league trophy in decades, and Jo Sung-hwan was in charge when Jeju made it to the Champions League in back-to-back seasons in 2017 and 2018.

Q. Who could be regarded as a ‘cult hero’ for the club in both the past and present squads?

Marcelo Toscano

Speaking personally, I’d have to go with Marcelo Toscano [Brazilian striker who played for Jeju between 2016 and 2017]. Getting a season ticket was one of the first things I did when I moved to Jeju in 2016 and Marcelo was always one of the main reasons to go to the stadium. He had the “it” look. And he had a way of finding the back of the net at critical times late in matches to secure big wins and did so on many occasions.

That 2016 season will live long in the memory because it was the first time for Jeju to qualify for the Asian Champions League in five seasons, so it was a pretty big deal. He was a big reason for our success that year as well, scoring three goals and adding two assists as Jeju made it to the knockout stage of the competition for the first time ever, and, as it turns out, the only time, so he is definitely one of the players still remembered as the years have gone by.

Q. Of the current squad, who would you say is the best player at the club and why?

Joo Min-kyu

I’d have to say [32-year-old striker] Joo Min-kyu at the moment. He was the top scorer in the league for two consecutive years, (joint top with Cho Gue-sung this season) and also had seven assists this year, so he developed quite a bit as a playmaker as well. He has always had a knack for scoring critical goals and I hope that he continues to produce at a high rate next season.

Q. Who would you say is the most exciting up & coming talent at the Tangerines?

Kim Beom-su

Jeju has been known to develop a lot of good, young talent through the years, and one who showed up on the radar last year was Kim Beom-su [22-year-old central midfielder]. According to Transfermarkt, his contract will expire at the end of this calendar year, but I imagine he will stick around. He showed his potential this past season and I think the club would like to develop him further rather than just let him go. There were a lot of first-team players who missed a lot of time on the sidelines in 2022, so he is a really good fit as a squad depth piece until he gets to the point when he may be counted on to become more of a regular first eleven player. He’s quite promising because of his ability and I would like to see more from him.

Q. Who would you regard as the club’s biggest or historical rivals?

Despite playing in different divisions, Jeju’s main rivals are Bucheon FC 1995. The reason for this is that what is the Jeju franchise now was originally located in Bucheon when the club was established back in 1982 as the Yukong Elephants. The 2020 season was a memorable one as the two sides faced off against each other in league play for the first time, and Jeju won all four matches on their way to their first league trophy in three decades, gaining them automatic promotion back to the top fight just a season after being relegated for the first time in club history.

Jeju doesn’t really have “beef” with any of the teams in K League 1, although they did have some memorable matches with Gyeongnam FC in the past few years, but again, Gyeongnam will play in the second division again in 2023, so there will be no chance for them to square off unless they cross paths in the FA Cup.

Q. How would you describe the current performance or state of the club? How do you think this season in K League 1 has gone?

The season for me was a disappointment. After all the work done in the winter transfer window to strengthen the squad, they fell short of their target of at least qualifying for the playoff stage of the Champions League for next season, which was also the stated goal at the beginning of the year.

The 2022 K League 1 table.
[IMAGE: Wikipedia]

Too many losses that could have been avoided; too many goals conceded at the most inopportune times late in matches. Those are things that will have to be corrected for the team to be able to take the next step up. On paper, it’s a talented squad and Nam Ki-il is a great manager. It was a good decision by the club to extend him for two more years – he has a chance to continue building what he started and he’s just one or two players away from having this squad challenge for a league title, providing everyone can stay healthy, as injuries were a bit of a concern this past season.

Q. Looking at the club’s history, what would you say has been the best game, result, or performance in your opinion?

The best result for the club since I have been around is winning K League 2 in 2020. Relegation at the end of the 2019 season was very painful for the fans, so expectations to get back to the top flight were high the following year. For much of the campaign, it was a tight race with Suwon FC, until Jeju won the critical head-to-head match between the two in late October to open up a six-point advantage at the top of the table with just a few rounds remaining.

The 2020 K League 2 table.
[IMAGE: Wikipedia]

Clinching the title the following week at home, and being there personally to witness it with my own eyes, well, that goes down as one of the best moments of my football life. To have been part of that journey is truly exceptional, and to be directly involved as a journalist, not just as a fan, it still reverberates today and will for the rest of my life.

Q. Do you have a favourite or iconic shirt from the history of Jeju United?

The 2017 Jeju United home shirt.

While I wasn’t particularly the biggest fan of them, the 2017 shirts with the floral arrangement at the bottom do stand out because they rampaged the league that year on their way to a runners-up finish. That season was the height of what’s become known as Tangerine Taka around the league. That team was a lot of fun to watch.

Q. What are the best and worst things about being a fan of the club?

Jeju World Cup Stadium is one of the best football stadiums in the country. The air coming in from the sea definitely makes up a unique part of the atmosphere at the ground. There’s never a dull moment with the team; it’s a great group of players and the organization is very well run.

The fans are great and a lot of us have personal connections and regularly attend matches in groups. There isn’t much that is considered “worst” of being a fan of the club, but if I had to choose, I would have to say coming ever so close to being in the conversation for Asia and then falling just short at the end of the season.

Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of Jeju United?

The same as every year – challenge for the league and qualify for Asia. After coming so close two years in a row, it’s something that absolutely has to happen.

A massive thank you to Branko for answering our questions on the K League 1 side Jeju United. Remember you can find their social media accounts in the links towards the top of the blogpage, whilst his opinions on Dinamo Zagreb can also be found HERE.

If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions, or even your own answers to the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at the94thmin@gmail.com or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.

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