SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — 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."