As Park Chu-Young, captain of the South Korean national team, becomes the 9th player from the country to play in the English Premier League after a move to Arsenal, it’s time to have a closer look at his career
Park’s parents never wanted him to become a footballer, with an IQ of 150 his academic capabilities seemed to be pushing him away from a sporting career. His footballing talents were as obvious as his intelligence as in the country’s high school football championship, he scored a phenomenal 47 goals in 33 games for Chunggu High School. During this time he also took a year off in 2002 to pack his suitcases and improve his game at the Zico Football Centre in Brazil – all funded by K-League club Pohang Steelers. After winning 4 top scorer’s awards in 4 different competitions at high school level, Park advanced to Korea University which, along with Yonsei University, has produced some of the best players in the country.
He was then called up to represent his nation at the U-19 AFC Youth Championship in 2004 which South Korea won for the eleventh time. Park became the tournament’s top scorer with 6 goals as well as being named 'Most Valuable Player'. His goal against China in the Final really kick-started ‘Park Chu-Young Syndrome’ as the South Korean number 10 received the ball on the left flank, cut inside, dribbled past five defenders – who repeatedly collapsed in an attempt to stop him – and put the ball into the back of the net by sending the goalkeeper the wrong way.
In January 2005 Park participated in yet another youth tournament. In the eight-team U-20 competition held in Qatar, Park Chu-Young bagged a brace against China (3-2 to Korea) and scored a hat-trick just 3 days later against Ukraine (3-2 to Korea) to put South Korea through to the semi-finals where they faced Algeria, Park continuing his wonderful form and scoring another double to sink the Africans 2-1. South Korea’s opponents in the Final were Japan, who had defeated Norway 2-0 in the semi-final, and they had their own prodigy in Hirayama Sota who had been widely advertised by the Japanese media as Japan’s response to Park Chu-Young. While Park Chu-Young again singlehandedly won the game 3-0 for South Korea, Hirayama made little contribution coming off the bench. It was yet another top scorer’s award (9 goals in 4 games) and a MVP title for the young striker who also won 2004’s Asian Young Footballer of the Year Award. The whole country hailed him as the potential saviour of Korean football, especially as at the time the senior side were struggling massively under Dutchman Jo Bonfrere.
It was about time he started his journey as a full professional footballer and in 2005, he made the kind of move that he would replicate 6 years later to join Arsenal. Pohang Steelers were clear favourites for his signature as the four time Korean Champions had the right of first negotiation after helping his progress by sending him to Brazil, although Daegu FC also had a glimmer of hope with Park being a native of the club’s local city. Against all odds he rejected Pohang to join FC Seoul who had been controversially relocated to the capital from the city of Anyang a year prior. Criticising Park was seen almost as treason and Pohang’s complaints went almost unnoticed, as the new star of Korean football started his professional career in a stellar fashion by scoring 12 league goals in 19 matches.
He also took part in the U-20 World Cup in the same year, scoring a wonderful free-kick against Nigeria but it was not enough for South Korea after losing to both Switzerland and Brazil. National team coach Jo Bonfrere was still not convinced that he had what it takes to pull it at the highest level, but Park eventually won his first senior cap in what was a must win match against Uzbekistan for the World Cup qualifiers in June. South Korea were trailing 1-0 and he scored a dramatic late equaliser to keep hope alive, and then went on to score the opening goal in the next match against Kuwait. Thanks to his two very important strikes South Korea qualified for the World Cup for the sixth time in a row. Then with the grandest international competition fast approaching, Jo Bonfrere was sacked and replaced by fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat.
Park then had to endure his first ever slump as he was clearly out of favour in the World Cup in Germany, only appearing in the last group match against Switzerland. In the match that ended South Korea’s hopes of reaching the Last 16 for the first time ever on foreign soil, Park Chu-Young was one of the scapegoats, having conceded a free kick that resulted in Philippe Senderos’ decisive headed goal. Meanwhile in September 2006, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who had already signed Park Ji-Sung in 2005, was quoted as saying that hoping to sign a ‘young boy from South Korea’ and when the English giants visited Seoul in July 2007, Ferguson admitted that the ‘young boy’ he was talking about was in fact Park Chu-Young and that he is checking his progress.
Since the failure at the 2006 World Cup and then a similarly disappointing performance at the Asian Games, Park had been in a slump and with niggling injuries he failed to find his form in the 2007 season, scoring just 2 goals in 11 appearances and the talk of a move to United all but died out. After a slightly improved performance at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing with a goal against Cameroon, Chu-Young secured a move to 2004 Champions League finalists AS Monaco. On his debut for the Stade Louis II outfit, he put in a man of the match performance with a goal and an assist against FC Lorient. It the end, it was a decent debut season in Europe for Park with 5 goals and 5 assists in 31 matches – solid numbers for a player who was fielded out of position as a wide attacking player.
Despite possessing enough technique and skills to cope at a wide position, one of Park’s biggest strength is his aerial ability even if he is not the tallest of players at 182 centimetres. During his time at FC Seoul, the club released their players’ Sergeant Jump Test results and Park recorded an incredible 91 centimetres with the other 23 players recording an average of 62.6 centimetres. With that number reportedly increasing by more than 10 centimetres since his move to Ligue 1 along with some superb off the ball movement, he led Moncao’s frontline scoring 20 league goals in his next two seasons until, of course, Monaco couldn't avoid relegation.
His biggest regret to this day must be not winning the gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. At first Monaco, unaware of Park’s obligations to serve the military, were reluctant to accept the Korea Football Association’s request to call him up but the player managed to persuade them. South Korea were undone by UAE in the semi-finals and only managed the bronze medal, meaning Park Chu-Young is still chained to the military service.
It’s a big head scratcher for both the player and his club as if he wants to continue playing professional football, he must return to Korea before he turns 27 and join K-League’s military club Sangju Sangmu – a highly unlikely option considering Park is already 26 years old. He could also join National Police Agency FC in R-League (Reserves League) before he turns 28 and in this case it is likely the player will be called up in December 2012 (as the Koreans surprisingly believe they get a year older on New Year's Day). However, both these options are almost impossible since, along with the player's age, those moves to military clubs are only allowed domestically. For now it seems highly likely that Park Chu-Young will be drafted in late 2013 to join the army in 2014, giving up playing organised – let alone club – football all together for two years. The ideal solution for both parties would be Park Chu-Young participating in next year’s Olympic Games as one of the wild card call-ups and trying his absolute best to win a medal with South Korea’s U-23 side. Although an improbable task, it will be more or less the last chance for Park Chu-Young and for once Arsène Wenger will have to respond gladly to an FA’s request to call up one of his players.