It was apt. On the day that Park Ji-sung announced his retirement from the South Korean national team, leaving the way open for even more young players, then 21-year-old midfielder Koo Ja-cheol was heading to Europe to join 2009 German champions VfL Wolfsburg.
Park’s goodbye was more emotional and marks the end of an era. After making his 100th appearance in the semifinal of the 2011 Asian Cup that ended in a penalty shootout defeat at the hands of eventual champion Japan, Park confirmed that he wouldn’t be seen in the famous red shirt of his nation again in order to prolong his career in another red shirt, that of Manchester United.
Even at the far-from-ancient age of 29, Park feels that the lengthy journeys from Manchester to Seoul don’t do his body any favors and it can be safely assumed that his English employers are not against this decision.
Koo Ja-cheol (Yonhap News)
“I think I could have continued my international career without health issues,” Park said, blinking in front of hundreds of flashlights at KFA House in Seoul.
“But I will accept the situation as it is and I have no regrets. Because of our geographic location, I’ve had to travel long ways from Europe to play (in South Korea). But to be competitive in the world, we have to travel around the world and players from now on should take care of themselves.”
Try as he might, he couldn’t convince the assembled press pack that he doesn’t plan to make a dramatic comeback at the 2014 World Cup when he will be 33.
“If we make it to the World Cup in Brazil, then players who worked hard during the qualification should get the chance to play,” Park said. “They will improve as players through World Cup experience. I don’t think I will ever be back with the national team.”
Park knows the Korean media well enough to know that it won’t be that simple. He will be fine for the next 12 months as there are few important duties for the national team but as Brazil 2014 starts to move into view that will change. There will be calls, demands and then pleas for his return especially if he is still playing well with Manchester United. Indeed, the name of Zinedine Zidane, who famously returned to the French national team ahead of the 2006 World Cup, has been in the headlines in the Korean media with a frequency not seen since that infamous headbutt in the final against Italy.
Koo has his European experience ahead of him. Last year was when the mild-mannered midfielder really started to rise to prominence in the Land of the Morning Calm. From the center, his five goals and 12 assists not only helped his club Jeju United into second place in the K-League and within touching distance of a first title, but confirmed his place as one of the nation’s top prospects.
It didn’t quite happen in 2010. A trial with English Premier League club Blackburn Rovers early in the year didn’t quite work out and while he was named in the preliminary roster for the World Cup in South Africa, Koo was cut from the final 23.
The recently finished Asian Cup was a different story however. Even before it started, the player had come close to joining Swiss team Young Boys of Berne but after finishing as the tournament’s top scorer with five goals, other suitors threw their hats into the ring. One came from VfL Wolfsburg. The German team, backed by Volkswagen, won the 2009 title but is struggling this season at the wrong end of the standings under former head coach of the English national team Steve McClaren.
But Koo, who will join up with Japanese national team captain Makoto Hasebe, is ready for the challenge. “Now I am at the starting line again. The facilities and team atmosphere was great. I feel very happy now as I was trying so hard to play in Europe.
“Now I will concentrate on playing well out there. Lee Young-pyo and many national teammates advised me to play in Europe. Though my original position is defensive midfielder, I am ready to play in any position the coach asks.”
By John Duerden, Contributing writer (firstname.lastname@example.org