Photo: ACTION IMAGES
In Aug 2011, Park Chu-Young had looked set to sign for Lille, the French
champions, but then his phone rang and Arsene Wenger was on the line. It was
the worst call to answer since Colin Farrell picked up a New York public
phone in Phone Booth and endured a few hours of misery. The South
nightmare lasted a good deal longer than that.
It didn’t seem that way at the time. Park put pen to paper to sign for Arsenal
and at a stroke sent the Seoul media wild with surprise and delight.
Consequently, the Land of the Morning Calm was anything but when he arrived
there 48 hours later for World
Cup qualification duty and scored a hat-trick against Lebanon. Four
days after that in Kuwait City, local autograph hunters gave him less space
than the Lebanese defence in search of a signature from this new Arsenal
star who then went on to score Korea’s only goal of the game.
It all confirmed that here was the Taegeuk Warriors’ best striker and one of
Asia’s biggest names. It was also a reminder of the early days in his
career. Taking the 2004 Asian Youth Championships by storm, he turned
professional in 2005 and literally quadrupled attendances in the K-League
everywhere he went with FC Seoul. He played well too, finishing his first
season as second-highest goalscorer and making his international debut for South
Korea in June, netting a last-minute equaliser in a vital World Cup
qualifier in Uzbekistan. Quick, two-footed, good in the air and intelligent,
there seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do and talk of Chelsea interest was
welcomed as natural.
Park stayed at home and the excitement of that first season inevitably faded
and so did his performances to an extent, though he made it to the 2006
World Cup. He joined AS Monaco in 2008 and enjoyed three solid seasons in
France and in the meantime matured in to Korea’s best striker. When a chance
came to join Lille in the summer of 2011, most thought that the move was as
good as he could hope for but Arsenal and Arsene turned his head.
He started reasonably well with an appearance in the Champions League against
Marseille, a well-taken goal against Bolton in the Carling Cup and then …
nothing, apart from seven minutes of Premier League action against
Manchester United. That has been pretty much it and his name is rarely
mentioned in England free from the word ‘flop’.
Now he is on loan at Watford in the nether-regions of the Championship in the
hope that he can return to the national team ahead of the World Cup.
For that, many in Korea blame Arsenal, as after all it’s hard to chastise the
player for accepting a dream move. Wenger is the only manager of a major
English club with Asian experience yet his record in buying eastern stars is
poor. None of Junichi Inamoto, Park Chu-Young or Ryo Miyaichi have made an
Even Park’s fans didn’t really believe that he was good enough to shine for
one of Europe’s elite and wonder why Arsenal thought he was. It did seem to
be a panic buy and while the player could have done more to seek pastures
new (though he did spend some time last season on loan to Celta Vigo) it was
the Gunners who had the wrong target in their sights and pressed fire.
The move to Watford may not be glamorous but with June fast approaching, few
care. Park just wants minutes on the pitch to make the plane to Brazil and
doesn’t even need that many. Korea need him and when he, as is likely,
appears against Russia, Algeria and Belgium, he will have a major point to
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