Korean football twitter handles have been buzzing for the last 2 hours as word spread quickly: Park Chu-Young is making a return to FC Seoul. The signing of the ex Arsenal / ex AS Monaco man has sent shock waves through the Korean football community. Details of his 3 year deal is undisclosed, but Park’s contract is widely believed to be the highest salary in the K-League.
The 29 year old striker started his professional career with Seoul, beginning in 2005 when he was voted that year’s Best Young Player. It’s been 7 years since he last played in an FC Seoul uniform. He’s had several highs and lows in his career since moving to Europe in September of 2008, beginning with a fairly successful stint at AS Monaco (see below for youtube highlights at Monaco).
In 3 seasons at Monaco, he increased his goal tally. During that period, Park furthered the Taeguk Warrior’s World Cup campaign in South Africa, scoring a brilliant free kick against Nigeria; Korea would advance to the World Cup round of 16 for the first time on foreign soil. Park’s best and final year in France saw his goal tally elevate to double digits (12 goals) before Monaco was relegated at the end of the 2011 season. That’s when his career and fate took a strange faustian twist: during a routine medical in anticipation of a transfer to Ligue 1 champions Lille, Park disappeared. Lille officials found his hotel room abandoned without a trace. He re-emerged in London, with Arsenal announcing him their newest acquisition. Apparently Park got an offer (via phone call from his agent and Arsene Wenger) during the trip to Lille that he couldn’t refuse.
At that time, Park was red hot and seemingly an unstoppable goalscorer for the Korean National Team. In PCY, Arsenal stole right from under Lille the captain of the Korean squad. However, despite a decent performance and a lovely game winning goal scored against Bolton in a League Cup match in October 2011, as the months and the promises by Arsene Wenger wore on, it was clear Park wasn’t getting his chances.
Below is a highlight reel of his performance against Bolton (might have to mute the edited in music). This —this is what Arsenal used to have / a player with pace, great touch, linked well, stretched defenses, and clinical finish …but hardly utilized…
He asked for a January transfer and/or loan spell that first season, but Wenger persuaded Park that he was going to feature for Arsenal in the spring. It didn’t happen. A few minuscule EPL and Champions League minutes was all that he had to show for his time in an Arsenal uniform in the few remaining months. Park was losing valuable playing minutes, and Korea’s most effective striker was rusting away on Arsenal’s bench. Simultaneously he was dogged with controversy from back home in Korea over allegations he tried to dodge the military draft. It was disclosed that when he was in Monaco, he was granted by the Korean government temporary residency status abroad, effectively allowing him to defer military conscription for 10 years. He wouldn’t have to do his service until age 35, which some argued would let him ‘off the hook’. Park had always maintained that he would honor his obligations, but that the residency/deferment would allow him to continue to hone his football skills in Europe’s top flight during the prime of his career, which in theory would benefit the Korean National team.
The controversy on top of the pressure in North London may have gotten to Park and he disappeared for several weeks after the end of his first season in England. He emerged with Hong Myong-Bo in Seoul, then the coach of Korea’s U23/hybrid Olympic squad. Hong took a chance and risked his own professional neck to vouch for PCY and his character – asserting that Korea needed his striking prowess to win an Olympic medal in the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Park followed through on his end of the bargain, bowing and publicly apologizing for the controversy. Back to the cauldron of London during the Olympics, Park showed some rust, but his timely goal against Switzerland was overshadowed by his performance in the Bronze medal match. With military exemption on the line (only an Olympic medal or Asian Games Gold would grant players exemption) they faced their arch-regional-rivals in Japan. In a very tense atmosphere with time running out of the first half, Koo Ja-Cheol found Park Chu-Young out in midfield. Collecting the long pass, Park Chu-Young dodged one, two, three, even four Japanese defenders and struck probably his most memorable and awe inspiring goal, against incredible odds. Koo’s insurance goal in the second half eventually gave way to Korea’s first Olympic football medal, and more importantly, bestowed military exemption to a young golden generation of Korean footballers, a number of whom moved to Europe (or continue to remain in Europe) thanks in some part to Park’s goal.
However Park’s own career in Europe had a few more starts and stops along the way; he was never was able to recapture his form from his AS Monaco years. A few weeks after the Olympics, he had a decent start to a loan spell to Celta Vigo in Spain, becoming the first Korean to score in La Liga (against Getafe). But a knee injury, possibly due to his goal ‘knee sliding in prayer’ celebration immediately took him out of action for a few weeks. He scored twice more that season but was not the same after his injury. The loan spell ended with little fanfare and he spent the following fall season sidelined at Arsenal back in football purgatory (only the last 10 minutes in a League Cup loss to Chelsea the only surprise footnote to an otherwise career damaging time at Arsenal). He was on loan to Watford in the spring of 2014, but after scoring a goal for Korea in a friendly against Greece that March, he was injured before the half was over. That knee injury would take him out for the rest of the English Championship season. He went back to Korea early to recuperate and see if there was a chance he could be in Hong Myong-bo’s plans for the 2014 World Cup. A decent showing against Russia with linking the ball and providing his teammates with chances on goal in Korea’s game 1 of the World Cup, he was singled out for not getting in more than a shot at goal himself. That trend continued, and while the battered squad, some of whom were still injured from long European campaigns, both the players and coach Hong got heavy criticism for the early exit from the World Cup. Like in 2012, Hong put everything on the line for a politically risky move to retain Park. This time, the gamble didn’t work out; in the public fallout, Hong eventually resigned from the KNT.
Arsenal and Park mutually terminated the contract and as a free agent, Park signed for Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab in the fall of 2014. He scored right away in his first appearance, but both club and Park mutually tore up the contract at the beginning of 2015. Rumor had it Park was still trying to find a way to continue playing in Europe, possibly with a club in France. What we do know: both Park and FC Seoul had been in talks about the possibility of a reunion, but the announcement just hours ago on the finalized deal has been lighting up the interwebs and sparked a flurry of discussion within the Korean football community.
So it is that PCY and his European adventure/misadventure has come to an end. To a degree, it had to have been a tough decision, and with it all the memories, the personal triumphs and the things didn’t work out -regrettably picking Arsenal over Lille (and what could have been had he stayed in France). All that is now in the past.
Most analysts would agree that the current deal is not only mutually beneficial for both club and player, it would likely be a huge lift and catalyst for a K-League that’s been struggling with declining attendance for a number of years. The Tavern writers have talked about ideas for how the K-League could attract people back to the stands -the return of Park Chu-Young was one of them. He is still dogged by some, who may never forgive him for the ‘Monaco Residency scandal’ (that for the record the Tavern Owner deems as a manufactured controversy). Nevertheless for the K-League, it’s a win-win: a star marquee attraction still in the prime of his football years (provided he doesn’t do any more post goal knee slide celebrations), there’s lots of narratives the media and anyone else can go with here. There are plenty of PCY supporters and detractors alike – as a lighting rod that continues to polarize and attract controversy – he actually could unite both camps to all show up at the stadium on game day. Much needed shot in the arm that increases attendance and in turn helps sustain Korean domestic football? We’ll tick that as probably yes. Increase the quality in the league? As much as one man can, certainly.
From a football POV, FC Seoul had been hemorrhaging their best players to Chinese clubs and have struggled in their absence. News of PCY’s arrival will be perceived as a boost to their squad (did I say boost? Try Mega boost). Their most recent record has been mixed, an Asian Champions League win over Kashima Antlers March 4th preceded their K-League season opener on Sunday: a dismal 2-0 loss at Ulsan with their new look/new manager vibe. Without good striking options, FC Seoul was staring at a very long season.
Now FC Seoul look to bounce back as Park Chu-Young could be ready to play as soon as this weekend* [update: we’re hearing reports that PCY may not be cleared to play due to paperwork until early April- we’re trying to confirm that]. Cha Du-Ri, in his last year before hanging up his boots, will certainly be excited and ready to feed crosses to the returning prodigal son. FC Seoul suddenly is a team that could put serious pressure on Jeonbuk as a fellow title contender.
As for their continental aspirations, Park will not be eligible to play in the Asian Champions League group stage games, but should FC Seoul make it to the quarterfinals, he can be included in their finalized ACL roster.
Update: word of PCY’s return is also catching up with mainstream media, this AP news report issued this morning is fairly comprehensive; it even assesses the anticipated lift for the K-League and quite possibly the spark needed to resuscitate Park’s football career.
Last notes: I was going to get out a kickaround and properly introduce Derek Leung as a new Tavern contributor. He posted his first last week, some great info on KPA’s in China. Obviously PCY’s signing changed the sequence of things, but nevertheless I am psyched to have another contributor on board. Derek hails from Vancouver (one of the most rad cities on Earth -and if I had to move to another city, that would top my list). Please welcome Derek and we will get his profile in the Who’s Who very shortly (as soon as I catch my breath about PCY). I look forward to seeing how other KPA’s are doing in China along with other places around the diaspora. Reminds me, we need to get another contributor in on Koreans in the JLeague (anyone interested, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Last last: It would behoove Tavern goers to know what impact Park Chu-Young had on the formation of the Tavern back in August 2012. It’s been a process getting immersed in Korean football in 2010 when I became aware of of Park Chu-Young. At the time, I wasn’t savvy as to where to find information in English on KPA’s in Europe. When I read in the NYT about PCY’s mysterious disappearance at Lille, it intrigued me -what was going on there? I went on tidbits of news, from his shocking re-emergence in London, his multi-goal performances for Korea in the fall, followed by promises of integration at Arsenal. His performance at the Emirates and goal scored against Bolton in a league cup match confirmed for anyone watching that in PCY seemed to be yet another insightful signing by Wenger. Long time KPA watchers know the frustrating rest of the story; I remember weekends waiting for PCY to emerge from the shadows of the bench, only to be confounded. His look of resignation and atrophying was very painful to witness. When a manager starts to lose his bearings and lose his touch with how to properly manage things – something elemental like proper player rotation, the collateral damage in it’s wake leaves potential talent to waste and careers stalled. That was PCY unfortunate fate with Arsenal. Not a consolation though, his tale is added to the countless # of other international players in the backchannels of football history. Coupled with the unfair criticism he was under in some Korean quarters with his military deferment maneuver led me to further track his progress at the Summer Olympics in 2012. Could he regain his mojo? This brilliant backheel goal in a tuneup with New Zealand was a foreshadow of things to come:
His remarkable goal against Japan in the Bronze match was incredibly inspiring. Usually a Bronze medal is not a biggie, but for Korean football, it was like Superman descending on from high: I knew right away what a significant moment it was and what military exemption meant for these young players. This idea eating at me, that he was harshly maligned in the English press as a flop (when they really didn’t know his full potential) + added unfairness from the Korean media + Korean success in London = the formation of The Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors. A way of blogging to illuminate about Korean players in a different context – to shed light, add context, collect & aggregate and when necessary, correct the record. Alternative press / alternative perspectives. Park Chu-Young, along with Park Ji-Sung, Ki, Son and all the gang have all been inspirations to the foundation of the Tavern in that heady summer of 2012.
As PCY and his career comes full circle, we’re glad he will get another chance to revive his mojo. His European career does not have to be necessarily viewed as a flop- but perhaps as a cautionary one. Even now, Koreans abroad have PCY and his experience at Arsenal as a reference point – perhaps to a counter productive end (see Ryu Seung-Woo and his almost-transfer to Borrusia Dortmund in 2013).
For now, long standing structural issues within Korean football remain as part of the quilt of PCY’s strange European foray. Mandatory military conscription is still an issue, a major thorn to the advancement of Korean football and it won’t go away anytime soon. But if anything good comes from the PCY Monaco/deferment public trials is perhaps this: an open national discussion could emerge as to practical solutions to this long standing obstacle. Can Korea, a democracy still in it’s infancy from decades-long military authoritarian rule, find the means to bring this issue to it’s logical and legislative conclusion?
Conversely, will the K-League dig deeper to find every available means to improve it’s domestic league, go above and beyond to organically build a domestic football culture of support? [*Last week’s season openers attendance figures were encouraging, an upward tic and some stadiums reported selling out -but time will tell whether they can sustain or increase those numbers]. A football culture that will inspire youth all over the diaspora to get out on to the fields and play ball (and away from the dying sport of yagu/baseball)? Will they go the extra mile (or kilometer) to train coaches in best practices, and finally get it’s youth structure adjusted so that players in that critical 16-18 year old age range get valuable experience with professional minutes?
Anywho, new phase has begun for Park Chu-Young and the K-League landscape. Game on.