Friday, February 19, 2010

The Return Of The King?

South Korea.
It has started. Nobody is quite sure exactly when and where but the debate about whether Ahn Jung-hwan should play at the 2010 World Cup is well and truly underway.

The striker, now 34, was the hero of the 2002 competition when South Korea made it to the semifinals, scored the winning goal in 2006 to give his country a first-ever overseas victory at the world’s biggest tournament and, now, he could be on course for a third consecutive appearance. He is about to return to the national team set-up for the first time in 20 months for March's friendly with Ivory Coast in London.

Ahn's name featured in headlines around the world in that golden summer almost eight years ago. Just hours after scoring the goal that sent South Korea into the last eight of the World Cup and eliminated the much-fancied Italian national team, Ahn was fired from his Italian club team of Perugia. His header had greatly upset his club’s owner Luciano Gaucci.

“He was a phenomenon only when he played against Italy. I am a nationalist and I regard such behavior not only as an affront to Italian pride but also an offense to a country which two years ago opened its doors to him," Gaucci told the Italian media. "I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer.”

Unsurprisingly, Ahn left Italy in the summer of 2002. Since then, he has been something of a journeyman. He headed to Japan and Shimizu S-Pulse and Yokohama F Marinos. After those two successful spells, he has struggled to find the net. First he tried in France and FC Metz, Germany and MSV Duisberg and eventually returned home to Suwon Bluewings and then Busan I’Park.

The ‘Lord of the Ring’ (nicknamed so for his goalscoring celebration that involved kissing his wedding ring) went to China last year to play for Dalian Shide. After a tough start in the chilly northern port city, he enjoyed a reasonable season. He is now being talked about in the terms of a World Cup ‘joker’, a player who could be introduced late into a game with the intention of making a big impact in a short time.

Ahn’s winning goal against Togo in 2006 was his third World Cup goal, more than any of his compatriots have ever managed on the world stage. Those memories linger long. The thought of the wavy-haired striker doing so one more time against Argentina, Nigeria and Greece, has his fans excited.

The player is keeping his feet on the ground. "Until now, I haven't thought about it," he told Ilgan Sports earlier this month. "But it will be an honour if I am selected. I am happy if the coach thinks that I am a player that the national team needs.

"All football players want to play at the World Cup but the results of the national team have been good and I have hardly thought about going to the World Cup. There are many better players than me. I will just keep doing my best."

The excitement was ratcheted up a notch late last week as he scored a goal in a friendly game between Dalian and K-League club Gangwon FC. The header was witnessed by South Korea’s assistant coach Jung Hae-sung. He had been dispatched by head coach Huh Jung-moo to check on the Chinese-based hitman.

“I was very impressed with his attitude,” Jung was quoted as saying. “He appears to be ready to sacrifice himself for the good of the national team, even though he is a veteran.

“He was not 100 per cent fit but still managed to play the full match and score a goal. His movement around the box could improve but overall he put on a good performance.”

Huh said in January that he was keeping his, or at least Jung’s, eyes on Ahn and that the door is always open. The big test comes when the squad is named for the Ivory Coast match and according to the Korean media, the KFA have requested to Dalian that Ahn be made available.

The Lord of the Ring looks like he may have the chance to complete his World Cup trilogy.

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