It’s not too often that an established international forward finds his way to the lower reaches of South Korea’s K-League. In the case of Gangwon FC, high profile signings were far from their speciality.
The club was one of the newest members of the league, having only been formed in 2009. In that time they had managed to forge a reputation as the division’s whipping boys. The 2011 season had been a complete disaster. The club had finished bottom of the league; only winning three matches all season, and only scoring fourteen goals all year. It is no wonder then, that optimism was in short supply going into the 2012 campaign.
Gangwon filled their foreign player allocation with the usual mix of mediocre journeymen, and young talent unable to establish themselves at their parent side. Bosnian one-cap wonder Muhamed Dzakmic remained at the club from the previous season. Tricky Brazilian striker Wesley arrived on loan from Corinthians, and aging Japanese journeyman Yusuke Shimada completed the non-Korean contingent in the Gangwon squad. Unusually for a K-League side, one slot was left empty (the maximum allocation is three foreigners and one Asian player). If one was to speculate, it may have been because of financial constraints, or perhaps a dearth of talented players wanting to join the worst club on the Peninsula. Whatever the reason, it was a defining decision in Gangwon’s season – even if that only became evident later in the year.
Despite early glimmers of hope, the first half of the season progressed very much as expected. Former K-League MVP Kim Eun Jung toiled away tirelessly as the focal point of the Gangwon attack, but his legs were beginning to show signs of aging as the year wore on. Wesley had the raw ability to win occasional matches almost on his own, but his youthful exuberance also made him a selfish and at times frustrating player. Results began to decline at an alarming rate, with ten losses in twelve games signalling the end for manager Kim Sang Ho. Gangwon were bottom of the league again, and with relegation introduced to the K-League for the first time this season, they needed something (or someone) special. Special is precisely what they got.
While Gangwon seemed to be in freefall, Ianis Zicu was spending an unhappy half season warming the Pohang Steelers bench. It was a scenario few would have envisaged at the beginning of the year, with many pundits predicting Zicu would be the signing of the season. This was a man who had twelve caps for Romania, and had played for Parma in Serie A. For an attacking midfielder his goals to games ratio was outstanding; almost a goal a game for CSKA Sofia, and similar impressive statistics in the Romanian top flight. Pohang Steelers were one of the K-League’s richest and most successful clubs. It looked like a match made in heaven.
Alas, things didn’t turn out as planned. Zicu kept up his side of the bargain by scoring frequently whenever he was on the pitch, but manager Hwang Sun Hong refused to give Zicu a regular position in the starting line up. Hwang seemed intent on starting home grown talent, rather than giving the non-Korean signings the opportunity many observers felt they deserved. The situation was clearly unacceptable for a player of Zicu’s calibre. Soon rumours began to circulate that he was unhappy at Pohang and was searching for a move.
Gangwon had found an able replacement for manager Kim Sang Ho. New head coach Kim Hak Beom had arrived after an unsuccessful spell in China, but he was best remembered in Korea for leading Seongnam Ilhwa to the K-League title in 2006. His arrival was an undoubted coup for a team of Gangwon’s size, but paled into insignificance when compared with the next major arrival at the club. On the eve of the away clash with Pohang, it was announced that Ianis Zicu would be joining Gangwon on loan for the remainder of the season.
Questions were asked; how on earth could Gangwon afford his wages? Rumours suggested that Pohang were still paying them, and were simply loaning out Zicu to meet his demands for first team football. Why Gangwon? Surely Zicu could have found a bigger club? Perhaps Gangwon was the easiest option because of their vacant foreigner slot. Whatever the reasons, Gangwon’s supporters didn’t care; they were understandably delighted, and waited with baited breath for Zicu’s debut.
For the first six matches the supporters were incredibly underwhelmed. Zicu didn’t score or play well in any of the half-dozen games he played in. He looked decidedly disinterested and perhaps a little out of shape. Clearly the time he had spent on the Pohang bench had been a demoralizing one, and Zicu was showing few signs of matching supporters’ expectations. The club were sinking further and further towards relegation; a nine game winless run coincided with the supposed superstar’s arrival. Then, slowly but surely, things started to improve. The turning point was a 4-3 home defeat to lowly Chunnam Dragons. The team didn’t get the win they were desperately craving, but Zicu scored two goals, and put in a man of the match performance. Both goals were direct free kicks, and gave a hint of Zicu’s sublime skill on the ball. There was most certainly more to come.
Something clicked; either in Zicu’s mind, or between him and the rest of the Gangwon team. Suddenly they were on fire, with Zicu the lynchpin of the side. Acting as a playmaker just behind the more advanced Wesley, they formed a lethal combination. Zicu scored a further seven goals in the remaining ten games, as Gangwon romped to six wins and two draws from their final fixtures. The great escape was most definitely on, and Gangwon did it in style. Highlights included a 5-1 home victory over Daejeon Citizen. Five different players got on the score sheet in a scintillating display of total football. A 3-0 victory over Daegu was similarly impressive, with Zicu again orchestrating the play, and weighing in with another brace. Finally, a must-win penultimate match against Seongnam saw a narrow 1-0 victory and assured safety for another year. Yet again Zicu ran the show.
As the fans celebrated an unlikely survival, Zicu waved at the supporters in what was surely to be his final appearance for the club. He had produced some breathtaking displays, and reportedly wanted to return to Gangwon the following year. Finances will likely make such a deal impossible. But whatever happens, Gangwon fans won’t forget the time that Zicu came to town.