Nestled high in the Taebaek mountain range that runs down the east coast of South Korea, the Alpensia Ski Jump stadium was built for the upcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Conveniently, the landing area for the ski jumpers happens to be around the same dimensions as a football pitch. Local officials put two and two together and decided that with Korea’s football season running from March to late November, and Korea’s skiing season running from November to March, the 11,000-seater stadium could serve both purposes.
The result of this is that while the stand at one end of the pitch holds the diehard drum-and-flag-wielding home supporters, the other end is overshadowed by two huge ski jumps, the bases of which reach the edge of the turf just behind the goal, acting like a giant playground slide, or perhaps a convenient ball retrieval system for the many stray long-range shots that define Korean football.
Ever since their formation in 2008, geography has forced Gangwon FC to lead a nomadic existence. Gangwon’s one and a half million inhabitants are spread thinly around the mountainous province, and as none of its principal cities are large enough to support a top flight side on their own, the team play some games in the east coast cities of Sokcho and Gangneung, and some in the central cities of Chuncheon and Wonju.
They added a fifth venue to their portfolio last summer, playing a few games at the Alpensia Ski Jump Stadium, in what seemed to be a one-off at the time; by the end of the season, they had returned to their usual home pitch in coastal Gangneung.
Last season, after spending several years in the wilderness of Korea’s second tier, they finally earned promotion back to the top-flight via the playoffs.
This led to a winter spending spree, during which the club brought in several well-known domestic players including striker Lee Keun-ho, who scored for Korea against Russia in the 2014 Brazil World Cup. While their winter acquisitions have led many followers of the K-League to expect them to be high-up in the table come the season’s end, the only sure thing is they will be high up in the mountains for their home games in the meantime.
While playing in such a unique stadium has some novelty value at first, and certainly makes the club stand out, it is not without its drawbacks. Not least, the fact that, like most ski resorts, Alpensia is in the middle of nowhere. Pyeongchang County, where the resort is located, has less than 50,000 residents, and most of those live on the far side of the county from the resort.