It has been a tough year for South Korea’s star soccer striker Park Chu-young. He’s sat on the bench for most of it and then was left out of the national team squad in June for delaying his military service by ten years. Can Park turn the situation around?
This summer, he will be one of Korea’s three overage players allowed to play in the 2012 Olympics. Scoring a few goals would help win a place back in the hearts of the people back home.
It all started last August. After three successful years in the French Ligue One with A.S. Monaco, he surprisingly joined English giant Arsenal. Fans back home were delighted though quickly became frustrated after he rarely made an appearance.
As well as the inaction, there was always something of a shadow hanging over the player however. Almost all able-bodied Korean males have to start their two-year tour of duty by the time they are 28.
As soon as he signed the Arsenal contract in August 2011, the clock was ticking for Park. It was expected that he would have to return home at the end of the 2012/2013 season.
In March however, his lawyer announced that the player had been granted a 10-year residency visa in Monaco and, under Korean law, could delay his military service by a decade.
The issue is a sensitive one in Korea. Millions of young men have had to interrupt studies and jobs to spend two years of their lives shivering on top of mountains facing North Korea.
As such, any suspicion that richer/more powerful/influential people may be using their status to get out of it goes down very badly.
Singer and television star M.C. Mong saw his career ended in 2010 after it was alleged he had removed teeth to avoid the draft. He was given a suspended sentence and community service.
Football players are not exempt. Park’s move was heavily criticized at home. It cost him a place in qualification games for the 2014 World Cup in June.
“I excluded him because of controversy over his performance and military duty,” explained head coach Choi Kang-hee. “Although players’ performance matters, it is also important to have pride and be willing to make a sacrifice once they join the team.”
Part of the problem was that Park had stayed silent amid the growing controversy. At last, he met the press in June and apologized.
"I understand that there was a huge controversy concerning my military service,” he said. “I would like to apologize for all the trouble this caused, and for letting people down," he said.
"I learned a lot about football while playing with A.S. Monaco for three years. I started dreaming of learning more in Europe as a football player. But even though I delayed military service, I never planned to emigrate or avoid it altogether," he said.
"I submitted a handwritten letter to the Military Manpower Administration pledging to fulfill my military duty, and I promise again today that I intend to honor that."
That apology got him into the Olympic team. Ironically, that could help solve the whole problem.
Sportsmen and women can win exemption if they perform great deeds that benefit the nation. The 2002 World Cup squad got such a pardon after reaching the semi-final and thrilling the nation. Winning a medal at the Olympic Games is usually enough.
A place in the semi-finals at London 2012 and Park may just find that the whole issue goes away for good.