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Oct 8, 2010

Chung ready to fulfil presidential ambitions

"Can I call you 'MJ'?" asked presenter David Davies to FIFA vice president Chung Mong-Joon at the Leaders in Football Conference at Stamford Bridge in London on Thursday. "Yes, just like Mick Jagger," smiled the South Korean to laughs around the hall, not least from Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam on the front row.

If Jagger was a consummate performer on the stage, then Chung, the former president of the Korean Football Association also put on quite a show when making his speech. There was something a little ironic about the son of the founder of Hyundai bringing down the house in a stadium covered with the logo of long-time rival Korean company Samsung, akin to the Stones rocking the Cavern back in the early sixties. Chung, with his fingers in all kinds of business, political and sporting pies at home, is cocksure and confident back in Korea and Asia but at Chelsea, he was playful, modest and almost shy. His words weren't. Davies said as soon as the speech ended that reporters would be running to the phones and he wasn't wrong.

The cell phone of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, whose post is up for grabs in May, must have been buzzing as much as the conference hall within seconds. The Swiss supremo comfortably saw off the challenge of African football chief Issa Hayatou in 2002 and was re-elected unopposed in 2007. He was served notice however that he will likely not enjoy the same privilege in 2011.

"It's still too early to say there will be no contender next May," said Chung. "In order to keep a large organisation like FIFA healthy you need healthy competition." Davies asked if he had thought about running himself. The Korean replied jokingly that he had not thought about doing so but "since you asked me, I will now think about it."

It is certainly possible that he will. It has long been believed that Chung wanted either to become the president of South Korea or the head of FIFA, with the former greatly preferable. Becoming the leader of the nation was one of the few things that father Chung Ju-Yung failed to achieve in an eventful life. Chung Snr founded Hyundai, built it into one of the biggest multi-national companies (now a major FIFA partner) around and bestrode the Korean business world like a colossus. He helped to bring the 1988 Olympics to Seoul but had a rare taste of failure in 1992 as he came third in the presidential election.

Chung Jnr can relate to that. Instrumental in bringing half of the 2002 World Cup to South Korea, it looked for a time as if that achievement, helped by a national team that reached the semi-finals to send the Land of the Morning Calm wild with delight, would sweep him along to the Blue House in the 2002 Korean presidential elections. It didn't quite work out that way and Chung was left to bide his time. The Seoul National University, MIT and John Hopkins graduate has never been short of other things to do. Not only the head of Hyundai Heavy Industries, Chung was Korea FA chief for a number of years and even after his departure, the KFA remains full of his Hyundai men, much like those with ties to the Furukawa Group in Japan, which houses the movers and shakers of football in Tokyo.

For Chung, the 2012 Korea presidential election is seen as his last chance, but one that is already fading. Until July, the 58 year-old was the chairman of Korea's ruling party. The Grand National Party suffered in Junes mid-term elections which were dominated by the sinking of the southern corvette, the Cheonan, at the hands of, as almost everyone agrees, North Korea. Chung, whose father was born north of the 38th Parallel, stepped down. That may have damaged his political ambitions but it could help Korea's bid for 2022. As Chung alluded to in the speech, one of the themes of the campaign is the hope that a future World Cup could involve Pyongyang and could help bring peace to the divided peninsula and stability to a troubled region.

Bringing the world's biggest sporting event home is probably the only thing that could catapult Chung back into the running to become his nation's president two years from now or the campaign could be a useful bargaining chip in the battle for FIFA's presidency. The situation is not a simple one as he admitted on Thursday. "The outcome of the selection of venues for 2018 and 2022 World Cups might affect the atmosphere of the (FIFA) presidential election next year."

The perfect storm of two World Cups being awarded at the same time and a FIFA presidential election just a few months later guarantees a few interesting weeks. Chung is nothing if not a cool captain capable of navigating through such squalls, especially if he creates them. His comments about reports coming out of Beijing in July that the Chinese FA were thinking about a bid for 2026 have already made headlines around the world. A tournament in the world's most populous nation could not happen in 2026 if FIFA awards 2022 to Asia. With four AFC nations in the running for 2022, only the United States would benefit from Chinese intervention. When I asked Bin Hammam, now openly friendly with Chung - the two hugged at Chelsea - after their bitter fall-outs in 2009, he claimed that China had denied talking about 2026. A few minutes later Chung agreed but didn't stop there.

"In spite of [China's] denial, the atmosphere within the AFC is not free from lingering suspicion that the rival bidding country might have entertained a wishful thinking to sway the bidding competition in its favour. FIFA attaches great value to the spirit of fair play and gentlemanly behaviour in football. My Asian colleagues believe that, if true, such attempts definitely deserve a yellow card, if not red.''

The press were abuzz, the US delegation stony-faced and conference organisers delighted at the thought of the impending publicity. Chung dropped his verbal bomb, didn't attend the subsequent press conference and was soon speeding out of Stamford Bridge and heading to Cyprus, leaving everyone wanting more.

His departure was witnessed by a couple of elderly Chelsea fans who had been to visit the club's museum. "Who was that?" they asked as Chung was seen off by a host of black-suited men and when told he was a FIFA bigwig, laughed "Nice to see powerful men at Chelsea." This time next year, when the Leaders in Football Conference gets into gear again, it could be the case that nobody will have to ask who Chung Mong-Joon is.

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