Ambitious Park races towards Emirates
Out of all of their heroes, many Korean football fans felt that it was Lee Chung-Yong who would one day play for Arsenal. Park Chu-Young, not so much. It was different back in 2005 when he was the hottest property in Asia and linked with Chelsea just weeks after making his professional debut. Then, it was assumed he would end up at the elite. Six years later, he is set to sign for the Gunners though not in time to face Park Ji-Sung, his predecessor as South Korean captain, in the English Premier League. Such a meeting would have organizers at the World Athletic Championships in the striker's hometown of Daegu which started the same day as his arrival in London for a medical, wondering where all the Korean journalists had gone.
The first event in Daegu was the marathon, an apt description of how a gruelling summer of speculation must have felt for Park. The starting gun was fired in June as he returned home following the relegation of his French club AS Monaco to be asked about where he would go next. With 12 goals in his third season, almost a third of the club's total despite a mid-season knee injury that kept him out of the Asian Cup in January (damage sustained due to a goal celebration that went wrong) it was expected that there would be offers for Korea's number one striker.
He replied that he wanted Champions League football. Fast forward to the end of the summer and just after Arsenal confirmed their place in the tournament; he was on his way to London. It seemed that the player grew as tired with all the talk of Liverpool, Bolton, Schalke, Milan, Lille, PSG etc as by the time he returned home again in August, he avoided reporters at the airport by the old 'talking on the phone' routine, something that Lille's president complained Park didn't do before heading to London.
The news was big in Korea. Park Chu-Young is no Ji Dong-Won. The Sunderland striker could walk down the streets of Seoul without being recognized but that has been difficult for Park, 26, since even before he became professional in 2005 with FC Seoul - upsetting Pohang Steelers who had expected to secure his signature. His performance at the 2004 Asian Youth Championships put him on the map. So much so that dealing with the pressure at a club like Arsenal should not be a problem, he has been burdened with an entire nation's expectations ever since he started his pro career. His first nicknames were 'Football Genius' and 'Korea's Hope'. Everywhere he went with Seoul in the first half of that first season, attendances doubled, tripled and more and within months he was the face of FIFA's console games in his homeland.
But he scored goals. A hat-trick in his first home game for Seoul got him going and he ended the season as the league's top scorer. National team coach Jo Bonfrere resisted calls to select him for a while but not too long. His first call-up came three months after his professional debut and in a vital World Cup qualifier in Uzbekistan in early June 2005, he came up with a crucial last-minute equalizer. Four days later he scored again as Korea won 4-0 in Kuwait to secure qualification for Germany. Every time he took the step to the next level, he shone.
That was as good as it got for a while. Bonfrere's replacement Dick Advocaat was less impressed with the striker, criticizing his lack of movement. The Dutchmen selected the youngster against Switzerland in Korea's final group game but he was anonymous. By then, the backlash at home had begun as had the inevitable slump. He stopped scoring and stopped looking like he knew how to score. He was sometimes shifted out to the wing, sometimes to the bench and sometimes to the treatment room with niggly knocks that disturbed his rhythm. The memory of Park's early days kept him in the headlines, though they were not happy ones. Always taciturn and unsmiling as soon as a microphone came his way, the smiles reserved for team-mates also started to fade. Park looked like he was no longer enjoying his football.
The move to Monaco in the summer of 2008 came at the right time. Out of one of the busiest and biggest cities in the world to much more relaxed surroundings of the Mediterranean, Park started to improve his game. Never an instinctive goalpoacher - his finishing has improved but still could be better - he is an intelligent striker (literally, with an IQ of 150), with the ability to bring others into the game and technically sound. Good in the air, he is also good with a dead, and even with a Jabulani, ball, scoring with a direct free-kick against Nigeria in South Africa. For his country, Park started to show the more mature side to his game in 2009 with regular goals and impressive all-round play and it was no surprise when he had a good World Cup.
Jerome de Bontin, the Monaco president who signed Park on the final day of the August 2008 transfer window, openly admitted that the club was looking to sign players who could expand the club's commercial reach as well as strengthen the team on the pitch. Freddy Adu didn't tick either box while Monaco were never able to make use of Park's standing in East Asia. Games were shown live but early-morning interest in the fate of a mid-table, at best, French team playing in empty stadiums was low. It may be tiresome, and usually wrong, to talk of an Asian signing with commercial benefits but in this case, Arsenal will have possibilities to explore.
It will be tempered by Park's military duty, a small shadow over the signing that will only grow as his time to return home in 2013 to serve for two years gets closer. Signing for Arsenal won't change that. The only thing that will is a medal in next summer's Olympics. Just as the 2002 team earned exemption for their semi-final heroics, the same could happen in London. Assuming Korea qualify, Park is almost certain to be one of the three over-age players, his last chance to miss the call-up.
So this is probably his only chance to play for a truly big club which explains his decision to drop everything at Lille. Park has the talent and the attitude to play in the Premier League, no doubt, but whether he has what it takes to make a top team like Arsenal that little bit better, is another question entirely. It is one that all of South Korea will be hoping that Park can answer positively.