Asian Debate: Are Japan's Takayuki Morimoto And South Korea's Ki Sung-Yong In Danger Of Missing Out On The 2010 World Cup?

A lack of playing time could prove costly...
Moving to Europe at a young age is a gamble. If it works, then your career is off and flying, if not, then you are soon returning home to explain what went wrong to the waiting reporters as soon as you step off the plane.

Asian stars are no different. Park Ji-sung famously took time to settle with PSV Eindhoven before becoming a global star. The likes of Mitsuo Ogasawara and Masashi Oguro didn’t last long in Italy and were soon home. Lee Chun-soo tried but failed to shine in Spain and the Netherlands.

A World Cup year adds an extra factor. Shunsuke Nakamura and Junichi Inamoto returned home to Japan in order for playing time ahead of the South African meet. In Korea, Cho Won-hee and Seol Ki-hyeon did the same. The thinking was all the same - it is much better to be active in league J and K than to be benchwarming in Europe.

Morimoto In Action For Catania

At the start of the season, Takayuki Morimoto had found the best possible way to get himself on the plane to South Africa – scoring goals in one of the best leagues in the world. The 21 year-old started the season for Catania in fine form, carrying on where he left off at the end of the 2008/09 season.

A young Japanese striker finding the Serie A net on a fairly regular basis for a side that was one of the weakest in the division had two obvious consequences: it attracted the attention of clubs elsewhere and it excited the Japanese media.

The press pack noted that the national team was in need of a no-nonsense striker with a nose for goal. The likes of Keiji Tamada and Yoshito Okubo may score in the J-league but had been rarely ruthless for the Samurai Blue. Morimoto was different, part, perhaps, of a new breed. Newspapers linked him with the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United and bigger Italian fish. AC Milan’s Pato compared him with a young Ronaldo. Japanese newspapers demanded his selection for the national team.

National team coach Takeshi Okada has often been reluctant to call upon European-based players – though he has changed his tune somewhat in recent months after poor results by domestically assembled teams – and he was never very enthusiastic about the Sicilian-based sharpshooter.

A Rare Appearance For Japan

Morimoto finally made his debut in October as a substitute against Scotland and a few days later got on the scoresheet for the first time against a tepid Togo. At the time, Morimoto looked likelier than fellow European star Keisuke Honda to be on the plane.

Not anymore. While Honda has been impressing in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League, Morimoto has spent much of 2010 on the bench. The mid-season capture of Maxi Lopez has hurt the young striker’s chances of South Africa. The clamour in Japan has died down and with Okada never his biggest fan, Morimoto’s hopes of a seat on the plane are lessening by the week and his name was noticeably absent from the three-strong list of European-based players that were named as guaranteed picks earlier this month by Okada.

There are worries just across the way in South Korea too where people are wondering whether Ki Sung-yong should have stayed in Seoul for a few extra months. The midfielder, perhaps the most highly-rated Asian youngster of the past couple of years, established himself in the South Korean national team by the time he was 19. Now at the age of 21, he is almost an experienced campaigner.

Happy To Be A Bhoy

A number of European clubs were interested and Ki, the 2009 Young Asian Player of the Year, chose Celtic who paid over US$4 million to K-League outfit FC Seoul. The deal was done in August 2009 but the move was made in January.

It hasn’t gone especially well so far. Not long after settling in Scotland, Tony Mowbray, the man who signed the player, was fired and replaced by caretaker coach Neil Lennon. The former Northern Ireland midfielder has yet to select the Korean. Ki hasn’t appeared in the famed hoop shirt since March 24.

Concerns are starting to be expressed in Seoul. This is a player that has played just four full league matches since last November. Still young, it is asking much of Ki to be at his best in the huge game that takes place at Port Elizabeth on June 12 against Greece after so little competitive football.

Earlier this week national team coach Huh Jung-moo, the man who introduced Ki to international football, told reporters that he had instructed the player not to be down about the situation. Fortunately for the midfielder, he was an established international before heading west and the coach is a fan – after all Ki saved Huh’s job back in September 2008 with a vital goal against North Korea. If the situation continues to the end of the season, more questions will be asked but the feeling is that Huh will select Ki for the team’s build-up matches and, assuming he performs well, for the Group B games.

Still Looking Good For South Africa

At the moment, the money is on Ki to go to South Africa and Morimoto to stay in Europe this summer but the fact that two of Asia’s brightest young stars are not playing just before the start of the world’s biggest sporting event is a stark reminder that the road to Europe is not paved with gold.

John Duerden

Asia Editor