Gunners face brand disloyalty in Korea
"You've got a lot of nerve coming here," said Lando Calrissian as he greeted Han Solo at Cloud City. For a second he looked set to let fly with his fists before embracing the smuggler in a bear hug. Solo would probably have preferred to have been punched and not frozen in carbonite but you can't have everything.
Lando's words sum up the feeling in Seoul after recent reports that Arsenal may be visiting the city in the summer for an exhibition match. After all, Park Chu-young, Korea's star striker and captain, may as well have spent the last six months hanging on Arsene Wenger's office wall for all the time he has spent on the pitch and the prospect of him parading around Seoul this summer like a golden bikini clad Princess Leia has not been well-received.
Leia and friends ended Jabba the Hutt's reign suddenly and violently but Wenger's time at Arsenal looked to be on a slow downward spiral before the start of this season, it's just that this campaign has been worse than anyone expected: out of the title race, soon to be out of the Champions League, almost out of stars and perhaps even out of patience with the man behind the success of recent years. With all that in mind, a few games in East Asia among admiring fans and media would be good for bank balances, the brand and the mood of pretty much everyone involved with the club. Or would it?
The possible tour, reported in the UK media earlier in the month, would include Hong Kong, Beijing and Seoul. A visit to South Korea, which would have made perfect sense at the end of August when Park became a Gunner, is now probably ill-advised.
Of course, it is all about the 26 year-old and how Arsenal signed the country's most important player and gave him a grand total of seven minutes playing time in the Premier League in almost six months - 70 seconds a month. It is not that Korean fans demand an automatic starting spot - the reaction to the August signing was one of pleasant surprise - more that they would like to see him play from time to time and not just in the Carling Cup. His almost complete lack of Premier League action has seen media and fans grow increasingly exasperated. Headlines in Korean newspapers echo the questions of fans in London: "Why the hell did Arsenal sign Park?"
For many, the answer has to be for commercial reasons, a common cry when clubs sign players from the east and understandably so. Asian national pride is strong when it comes to their football players heading to the big leagues and it is a feeling that plays a growing role in the marketing and commercial strategies of the big European clubs. It is why the search for the first world-class Indian or Chinese player is never-ending. It is why Arsenal have partnerships with clubs in Vietnam and Thailand. It is why Celtic started a Japanese homepage after the arrival of Shunsuke Nakamura. It is why, soon after signing Ji Dong-won, Sunderland arrived in Seoul to try and find sponsors. It is why Everton shrugged their shoulders in 2002 when Li Weifeng was tagged on to the Li Tie transfer.
Commercial opportunities are nowhere near as automatic and easy as is often made out - most teams benefit little or at all - but they are there if the right club buys the right player at the right time and he plays a part on the pitch. It is no accident that after signing Park Ji-sung, Manchester United have issued over one million club credit cards in the country, have attracted two major Korean sponsors and have also played in Seoul twice to sell-out crowds and massive media attention.
But for Arsenal, paying six million euros in the frenzied final hours of a transfer window does not suggest any long-term strategy to penetrate the Asian market but rather a rushed reaction to a poor season start. That said, there would have been opportunities. Park Chu-young is a huge star in Korea, perhaps the top striker in Asia in the past year or two (well, he was) and the captain of the most successful national team in the world's biggest continent. Park in London could have been something for fans and media to really sink their teeth into. But you can't do much with seven minutes.
Those fans and journalists would have understood if Park had been loaned out in January, accepting that Arsenal felt that he wasn't good enough or right for the team. But for reasons that are unclear, he has stayed at the club and on the bench, and often not even on that.
Annoyance is especially high because as well as the usual national pride, there are other issues at stake. One is the fact that Park's time is limited. At the end of 2013, he is expected back home to start his two-year military service. He has wasted two-thirds of one of the only two seasons he has left before his European career is most likely over.
More importantly is his role in the national team and this has been the biggest issue in Korean football in the past few weeks as a vital 2014 World Cup qualifier against Kuwait on February 29 approaches. The fact that the team's star striker has not played regular club football since last May is a worry - as it would be in England if Wayne Rooney went overseas in the middle of World Cup qualification and never played. The debate over whether Park should start sounds crazy when you remember that he is the captain and has scored eight goals in the last five games for the Taeguk Warriors.
Arsenal have not actively tried yet to use Park to sell their brand to Koreans, though he naturally features prominently on the club's Korean-language website, but going to Seoul to make money, grow the fanbase and expand the brand, which is the reason for such tours, after not playing Park all season, would be a mistake. If reaction was 'cold' , according to the country's leading newspaper, to the prospect of a visit then confirmation would be almost carbonite-like. And that is before the sight of Park being used by promoters to sell tickets and broadcasting rights, which, if the experience of past trips by European teams to Asia is anything to go by, he most certainly would be.
It does not mean that no tickets would be sold but it would mean that any Arsenal visit would be overshadowed by constant questions about Park Chu-young from a largely hostile media and public. Arsenal would show a lot of nerve going to Korea in the summer, it may be best to give Seoul a miss.