Seoul: On a cold night in the South Korean city of Daegu, dejected Gwangju FC players, with their twitter names printed on the backs of their shirts, bowed to their small band of travelling fans in apology for becoming the first team to be relegated in the K-League's 30-year history.
In order to fulfill the AFC Champions League criteria, the K-League introduced relegation in 2012 to a revamped second tier. Also at the Asian Football Confederation's behest, military club Sangju Sangmu was automatically demoted a decision that caused Sangju to boycott the final third of the season in protest.
Gwangju had been battling with Gangwon FC and Daejeon Citizen to avoid the other relegation spot, but lost the penultimate game of the season.
The poor performance came despite a squad that includes South Korea international Lee Seung-gi and other highly-rated players such as Park Ki-dong and Kim Dong-seob.
Gwangju started the season reasonably well but soon sank to the bottom.
While relegation had been discussed for years, with the Korean Football Association employing outside consultants to explore the issue in 2009, it was never implemented until the AFC's intervention. Authorities were concerned how club owners would react to dropping down a tier.
The majority of members in Asia's oldest professional league are owned by international conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai, but six so-called "Citizen clubs" rely on backing from their host city and sponsors to operate. Without such financial support, most would find it impossible to survive even in the top tier. The question is whether such support is forthcoming in the second tier.
Gwangju is the newest of those teams, coming into existence in 2011. Despite the short history, club president Kim Jun-young told supporters Thursday there is no reason to be concerned about its immediate future, especially as it has a close relationship with the city's mayor.
"The budget already allocated for next season is the same as this season. There are no worries about going bankrupt," said Kim who also said that the construction of a new clubhouse would go ahead as planned.
"Even though we have been relegated, we are not going to change what we have prepared, although after two years we should try to get back to the top league."
While two teams are relegated, promotion will not be introduced until 2014 as the K-League reduces its number of teams from 16 in 2012 to 12 in 2014.
"What can you, the first coach to be relegation in 30 yearsm, say?" said coach Choi Man-hee following Gwangju's loss at Daegu. "It would have been good if we had won tonight.
"As this is just the second season, there is a gap in experience with the established teams. As the coach, I take responsibility for the results."
In Japan, which introduced relegation in 1999, four teams are trying to avoid the last two spots.
The biggest surprise is that Gamba Osaka is in danger. The 2008 Asian Champions League winner has seen a number of top players depart, and despite being the highest scoring team in the division, a porous defense means it sits in the relegation zone.
It can still throw up surprises and before the start of the season, few expected 2008 Asian Champions League winner Gamba Osaka to be in the relegation zone with one game left to play. Consadole Sapporo and Albirex Niigata are already relegated.
If Vissel Kobe, a point ahead of Gamba, and Cerezo Osaka, three points better off, both win then Gamba is relegated regardless of the result in its game at Jubilo Iwata.
Only if rivals drop points can Gamba hope to survive.
There are also worries about what will happen to Gamba's best players, especially Japan international midfielder Yasuhito Endo if the team drops to J2. Endo has been linked with moves to other J-League teams and there is rumored to be overseas interests. "Even if we are relegated, then we will do our utmost to keep our best players such as Endo," club president Kikuo Kanamori told local media earlier this week.
Consadole Sapporo is already relegated while Albirex Niigata must win and hope that other results are favorable.
Story first published on: Friday, 30 November 2012 15:31 IST