By Ben Somerford | Asian Football Editor
It's hard to believe someone who played eight minutes of league football last season could generate such discussion, but that's the effect of Park Chu-Young in South Korea. Following Park Ji-Sung's international retirement, the Arsenal striker has become the national team's biggest name but his latest act, to defer his compulsory military service, has turned public opinion in the Land of the Morning Calm against him.
On Friday, South Korea will open the final round of their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign away to Qatar but they will be doing it without the 26-year-old Daegu-born striker. Park, who scored eight goals in five internationals during 2011, was overlooked for selection for the Taeguk Warriors' current camp by coach Choi Kang-Hee who, like the general public, has been left flabbergasted by his latest antics, which has left many questioning his commitment to his country.
|PARK'S PAST SIX INTERNATIONALS
|29/02/12||won 2-0 v Kuwait - 0 goals
|11/11/11||won 2-0 v UAE - 1 goal
|10/10/11||won 2-1 v UAE - 1 goal|
|07/10/11||drew 2-2 v Poland - 2 goals
|07/09/11||drew 1-1 v Kuwait - 1 goal
|02/09/11||won 6-0 v Lebanon - 3 goals|
Initially, the uber-cool Choi sat square on the fence when Park obtained a 10-year Monaco residency visa which the Military Manpower Administration confirmed would allow him to defer his military service until 2022. However, despite his apparent neutral stance, the South Korean boss made it clear he wanted Park to hold a press conference to justify his decision following the public fallout. The former FC Seoul striker did the opposite and that's what has led to his current omission.
Indeed, there was no press conference. In fact, after completing his club commitments with the Gunners, Park snuck into his homeland last month without letting anyone know, likely in order to avoid a typical airport media scrum, before refusing to answer phone calls from reporters as well as the Korean Football Association (KFA). To say the situation has deteriorated to sickly sour would be a gross misunderstatement.
As a result, you get the impression that a lot of time will need to pass to heal the relationship between Park and the KFA as well as South Korean fans in general. In the meantime, the national team have a World Cup campaign to get underway and Choi is faced with the dilemma of how to replace his star striker. It's hardly ideal preparation for a side that struggled into the final round of qualifiers and sacked coach Cho Kwang-Rae in December in the wake of a humiliating loss to Lebanon.
Choi steadied the ship with a 2-0 win over Kuwait in February ensuring their passage into the fourth and final round of qualifying for Brazil 2014, but the team were far from convincing on that night at the Seoul World Cup Stadium: Park, too, was ordinary, likely due to his lack of game-time at club level and the doubters remain out in force.
|"The doubters will point to the fact that Lee Dong-Gook will be 35 when the 2014 World Cup kicks off, but in Korea's hour of need, he's the ideal solution, even if it is not a long-term one"|
Nonetheless, Choi's unequivocal answer to the 'replacing Park' dilemma is to turn to his old Jeonbuk Motors buddy Lee Dong-Gook. And even though 'the Lion King' has been breaking all sorts of records in the K-League in recent times, there are doubts about his ability at the top level too.
The 33-year-old former Werder Bremen and Middlesbrough striker, once dubbed the 'Lazy Genius', appeared to have concluded his at-times controversial international career after the 2010 World Cup but has recently been drafted back into the fold. Former coach Cho called him up in November after he had banged down the door with stellar club form but he was unable to impress upon his initial return.
It wasn't until new boss Choi thrust him into the spotlight in the vital Kuwait game, in which he scored, that Lee rediscovered his confidence at international level. The doubters, though, will point to the fact that Lee will be 35 when the 2014 World Cup kicks off, but realistically in Korea's hour of need, he's the ideal solution, even if it is not a long-term one.
On the flipside of that is 21-year-old Sunderland striker Ji Dong-Won, who many believe can become the Taeguk Warriors' number one striker. Four goals at the 2011 Asian Cup as a teenager, along with strikes in the Premier League against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City certainly has enhanced his reputation.
In the meantime, as Ji develops and Park remains banished, Lee is Choi's obvious solution. Whether he's good enough to get Korea on the path to Brazil 2014 is the next question waiting to be answered.