Arsenal forward Park Chu-young, in hot water for his decision to delay military conscription, was named to South Korea’s men’s Olympic football team on Friday.
Hong Myung-bo, the head coach of the Olympic squad, announced the 18-man lineup and selected the 26-year-old Park as one of his three “wild cards,” used on players over the Olympic roster age limit of 23.
Goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong, 27, and defensive back Kim Chang-soo, 26, were the other two wild card choices. Each country can select up to three veteran players for the Olympics.
Park has been under fire for postponing his mandatory military service by obtaining a 10-year residency visa in Monaco last year.
The news became public in March this year, setting off controversy in a country where all healthy men are conscripted to serve about two years in the armed forces.
Park, who was subsequently dropped from the senior national team before the World Cup qualifiers earlier this month, told a press conference two weeks ago that he would complete his service.
Hong arranged the occasion and accompanied the player on the podium, indicating that Park would join him on the Olympic team.
Park, who has played 58 games for the senior team, had been training on his own in Japan, and Hong said he has since joined the rest of the South Korean team this week.
“Physically, he’s much better than I’d expected him to be,” Hong said. “He brings a lot of international experience and he will play a significant role on this team.”
The head coach, however, also tried to lessen the burden on the player.
“As a head coach, I’d like for him to do a lot of things, but he’s just one of the 18 players we have,” Hong said. “I am actually worried that he might be trying to do too much for the team. I don’t want that to affect his performance.”
With no apparent under-23 star in net, the choice of Jung, a fixture on the senior team with 43 international caps, was a no-brainer. But Kim, a defensive back for Busan I’Park in the K-League with just two international matches under his belt, raised a few eyebrows.
The Olympic team earlier lost a defensive stalwart Hong Jeong-ho to a knee injury. Coach Hong wanted to replace him with Lee Jung-soo, a 32-year-old veteran of the senior team, but Lee’s professional club, Al Sadd in Qatar, refused to release him for the London Olympics.
Unlike World Cups and other international tournaments involving players of all age, professional clubs aren’t obliged to make their players available for the Olympics.
“We waited for Al Sadd’s answer on Lee’s availability until late last night,” the coach said. “And Kim Chang-soo was our Plan B in case Lee couldn’t join us.”
Hong said he also liked Kim’s versatility, explaining that Kim can play as a central defender and also protect either wing.
Two rising stars who have excelled for the senior team have been named to Hong’s squad. Wingers Kim Bo-kyung, who netted two goals in South Korea’s 3-0 win over Lebanon in a World Cup qualifier in June, and Koo Ja-cheol, who scored the other goal in the same game, will man the midfield. Ki Sung-yueng, a Celtic FC midfielder in Scotland, and Ji Dong-won, the Premier Leaguer for Sunderland, are also on the team, having combined for 65 international contests.
Ki is practicing with a partially torn right thigh muscle, but Hong said there is still plenty of time for him to recover and dress for the Olympics.
South Korea has been paired with Mexico, Switzerland and Gabon in Group B. This will be the country’s seventh straight Olympic appearance and ninth overall. But South Korea has never won an Olympic medal in men’s football, having advanced beyond the first round only twice.