Mind the gap! Forgotten front man Park seals World Cup place
Seoul: With a club career in freefall and his name all but forgotten by South Korean fans and media, Park Chu-young`s chances of being on a plane to Brazil for the World Cup finals this summer looked slim at best, as he faded behind the scenes at Arsenal.
Few would have bet that going on loan to Watford in the English second tier in January would have sparked a change in fortunes, but on Thursday the willowy striker was named in South Korea`s 23-man squad for Brazil to cap a remarkable return.
Park has no shortage of critics, many who say his loss of club form and inability to stay fit makes him too big a risk to take to Brazil.
But with World Cup and Olympic experience under his belt, coach Hong Myung-bo said Park`s contribution could be crucial in Brazil.
"At this World Cup we will have to battle some of the world’s best players, and it was hard to exclude Park given his experience," Hong told a news conference at the National Football Centre (NFC) in Paju, north of Seoul.
"In addition to that, we don`t have anyone who can replace him, and he gets on well with the rest of the squad, those are the reasons that we selected him."
With 62 caps and 24 goals, the 28-year-old is one of the most experienced players in Hong`s young squad.
He won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games, when Hong was coach of the Olympic team, and at the World Cup in South Africa two years earlier found the net against Nigeria in a 2-2 draw that saw the Koreans advance to the last 16.
He also scored an own goal against Argentina in group play.
Park made just seven first team appearances for Arsenal after arriving from Monaco in August 2011. After spending a season on loan at Celta Viga, he toiled again at Arsenal before being sent on loan to Watford to get first team football.
Hong said at the time he was relieved that Park had the opportunity to make a "fresh start" and called the forward up to the squad for a friendly against Greece in March.
Park wasted no time in repaying Hong`s faith in him, blasting home a clinical volley after just 18 minutes and delivering a good all-round performance in South Korea`s impressive 2-0 win in Athens.
While no one doubts Park`s finishing ability, his fragility remains a concern.
Park came back to Korea in April to have treatment on a foot injury, the latest in a long line of niggles and problems, and stayed here to continue rehab at the NFC instead of returning to Watford, whose season finished in May.
Hong shrugged off questions about whether he had a soft spot for Park and said comments that the Korean Football Association were giving him special treatment were wide of the mark.
"We tried to give support to any player who needed our help," said Hong. "People may see it differently but from my point of view we did not give Park special treatment."
South Korea will be playing in their eighth consecutive World Cup this summer and face Belgium, Russia and Algeria in Group H.