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On transfer deadline day in the summer of 2012, Park Chu-young completed a season-long loan switch from English Premier League (EPL) giants, Arsenal to La Liga new boys, Celta Vigo. Fellow forward and ex-Sky Blue teammate, Toni Dovale, looks back on Park’s time in Southwestern Europe.
The man nicknamed the ‘Football Genius’ made the decision to swap North London for Pontevedra for meaningful game time after finding first-team opportunities limited at the Emirates Stadium due to the arrivals of Lukas Podolski from FC Cologne and Olivier Giroud from Montpellier HSC.
The Daegu native was signed by Arsène Wenger on the final day of the summer window a year earlier in a deal worth €5 million from relegated Ligue 1 side, AS Monaco, where the striker had a record of twenty-five goals in ninety-one matches in the French top-flight for Les Rouges et Blancs. The move came as a shock to many within the game however, with Park having looked set to sign for Lille OSC.
The FC Seoul number ten experienced a difficult beginning to life in England, making just six appearances for Arsène Wenger’s team, scoring a single goal, which came against Bolton Wanderers in an all-EPL tie in the fourth round of the Carling Cup (League Cup) at the Emirates in late October, 2011. Park beat Adam Bogdan from ten yards with a well-placed curling finish which proved to be the winner, but the one-time South Korean national team captain could not force his way into the Gunners’ starting eleven on a regular basis, and with only managing to play seven minutes in the league that year, a transfer away from the Big Smoke was inevitable.
The Korean hitman was brought to Vigo by Rafa Benitez’s former right-hand man, Paco Herrera, and the ex-Liverpool assistant’s decision appeared to be immediately vindicated when Park made an instant impact at Estadio de Balaídos, coming off the bench to get on the scoresheet with his first touch on his home debut, volleying in the game’s decisive goal from Michael Khron-Delhi’s delivery in a hard-fought 2-1 success over Getafe CF in La Liga.
The six-foot attacker was competing for a starting berth with Toni Dovale, who rates Park highly, “Park Chu-young is one of the biggest Asian players ever, and I feel extremely lucky for having played with him. He is really powerful in transitions and is a killer inside the box, he is very dangerous on the counter and is strong in the opposition’s penalty area, and has amazing shooting skills. He probably has the best finishing ability that I’ve ever seen in a player.”
The Yeongnam-born centre-forward then further endeared himself to the Olívicos’ faithful two months later, when he connected with Iago Aspas’ low cross to poach a crucial equaliser and earn his team a vital point in a home league draw with RCD Mallorca.
But the K-League title winner’s most memorable performance for O Celtiña came in the second leg of the fourth round of the Copa del Rey versus second-division club, UD Almería. Os Celestes were well-beaten in the first leg at Estadio de los Juegos Mediterráneos, and trailed the Andalusian outfit going into the reverse fixture by two goals to nil, thanks to efforts from Jonathan Zongo and Abel Molinero. The Rojiblancos looked on course for an upset after a goalless first forty-five at Balaídos in the return encounter, before Park’s header from an Augusto Fernández pick-out got the Primera División team back into the contest. Full-back Roberto Lago then brought parity deep into injury-time to send the tie into extra-time with a left-footed shot from Borja Oubiña’s knock-down. Ex-Chelsea midfielder Enrique de Lucas completed the turnaround in that additional period after being teed-up by Aspas to set up a round of 16 clash with eventual champions, Real Madrid.
Dovale recalls that exhilarating reversal with particular fondness, “I remember that game perfectly. We overturned the situation, got to extra-time and finally qualified for the next round, with Park playing a great game and scoring. I also remember that I made a beautiful dribble, but my shot ended up hitting the post, and Park was joking with me about that for the next three weeks!”.
The former Asian Young Footballer of the Year’s time on the northwestern coast of Spain took a dramatic turn following the dismissal of the man who brought him to the club, Herrera, who was relieved of his duties as head coach in February, 2013 following a 3-1 away defeat to Getafe, which left Celta Vigo in the relegation zone in eighteenth position. Abel Resino, who had previously led Atlético Madrid to the UEFA Champions League group stages in 2009, replaced him as manager, and Park quickly found himself out of favour under his new gaffer.
Dovale was sad to see Herrera leave, “I made very good memories with him, he coached me for a number of seasons and he was a master for many young players like me at that moment. He knew me well and had confidence in me, so I feel thankful for the lessons that he taught me.”
Park’s last goal in Iberia was a consolation in a 3-1 away defeat at Deportivo de La Coruña in mid-March, 2013, a tap-in from another Khron-Delhi pass.
The former Les Monégasques man missed the last six fixtures of the campaign because of injuries and was even fined by the club for failing to attend the final bout of the season against RCD Espanyol, a game which Resino’s boys won to narrowly avoid the drop, finishing in seventeenth.
Dovale had sympathy for Park’s plight, but was full of praise for the job that Resino did, “That coach came in at a difficult time and his period was really short. The team was not in an easy situation, but we turned it around and everything eventually worked out for us.”
The Spaniard believes that Park made a helpful overall contribution to Os Célticos’ campaign, despite his latter struggles prior to returning back to Holloway, “Celta Vigo is a big club in Spain with a beautiful past, but some months earlier, we were just promoted to La Liga again, so a new project was starting there, and Park was an important player for us. It was not an easy season, but we achieved our objectives, so it was a positive season in the end.”
On a personal level, Dovale enjoyed his breakthrough year, “It was exciting. It was my first season in La Liga, so it was unbelievable for me to play against some of the best players in the world and in the biggest stadiums.” The former Sporting Kansas City player made sixteen appearances for Celta that term, the highlight of which was setting-up a Mario Bermejo strike in a two-nil home league triumph over CA Osasuna.
Dovale is not surprised to see Park still competing and going strong in K League at thirty-four years of age. The ex-Taegeuk Warrior scored ten league goals in 2019, helping FC Seoul to a third-place finish in the process, which saw the Sangam club gain qualification for the AFC Champions League (Asian Champions League). Park has already had a telling effect on the competition in 2020, as the Seoul Dragon bagged the only goal in a one-nil win over A-League side, Melbourne Victory in Group E in February. “I used to make jokes about how many more years he would be playing for, and I am certainly sure that he will be playing until the moment that his mind says is enough because he has such a strong work ethic, and his daily routine allows his body to always be at 100%. Right now, he has found a good balance between experience and physical conditioning, and that is why he continues to perform so well.”
Dovale is no stranger to Asian football himself having had recent spells at Navy FC in Thai League 2 and also in I-League for East Bengal FC. But his most successful time on the continent came at Indian Super League (ISL) outfit, Bengaluru FC in the 2017/18 season, where the A Coruña wideman registered four assists in twelve ISL matches for the Blues. The ex-Rayo Vallecano winger is a self-confessed FC Seoul fan, owing to his friendship with Park, and also to his admiration for one-time Seoul playmaker, Mauricio Molina, and the 30-year-old would relish the opportunity of playing on the Korean Peninsula. “I follow K League, the atmospheres are amazing and I really love the country. Offensive Korean players are usually good and fast in transitions and because of my qualities, I believe that I could assist them, as providing creative passes and assists are my biggest strengths. My work ethic and respect for others are principles that South Korean society teaches and develops in its citizens, and I have also been educated and raised according to those values too, so I think that it would be easy for me to adapt to life there.”
Dovale may one day find himself sharing a pitch with his old friend again in the not-too-distant future.