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Veteran forward fitting right in with nat'l football team after long absence

Park Eun-seon of the South Korean women's national football team trains at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Wednesday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Yonhap)
Park Eun-seon of the South Korean women's national football team trains at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Wednesday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Yonhap)

PAJU -- Seven years can seem like an eternity in football, even longer than some players' entire career.

It has been seven years since forward Park Eun-seon last played for the South Korean women's national team. Once a prolific scorer, Park has mostly been a forgotten figure since representing the country at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup.

So much has changed with the women's program over that time, with new head coach Colin Bell at the helm and working with up-and-coming players who were toddlers or barely teenagers when Park made her international debut in 2003.

And Park thinks the vibe is much different too. But back in the national team uniform after her protracted absence, Park has fit right in with the rest of the mainstays.

"The mood seems a lot lighter and more easygoing than in the past," Park said Wednesday at the National Football Center in Paju, some 30 kilometers south of Seoul. It was the first day of training camp in preparation for the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) E-1 Women's Football Championship, which kicks off July 19 in Japan.

"I thought I'd feel out of place here, because I'd been away for so long. But I've been having a lot of fun," Park added. "The girls have been so nice, and they've taken good care of me. I can just concentrate on football and not worry about anything else."

Bell, who took over South Korea in October 2019 and had never coached Park before, rescued the 35-year-old forward from the football netherworld, when he called her up for a friendly against Canada on June 26.

Park did not play in that match in Toronto, but her long-awaited return to international action will likely come at the EAFF tournament.

South Korea will try to win only their second EAFF title. Their first and only championship came at the inaugural event in 2005. Park and goalkeeper Kim Jung-mi are the only two members of that 2005 squad back on this year's team.

Asked how her experience can help this iteration of the team, Park said: "I am sure many other players have had championship experience with their clubs. We just have to stick to our game plan and do what the coach wants us to do."

Listed at 182 centimeters and 90 kilograms, Park will not be pushed around so easily once she establishes her presence in the opposition box. Kim Hye-ri, the national team captain, even said Park is "probably the most physically imposing player in Asia." Park used her strength and deft touch to score 17 goals in her first 34 matches, and South Korea are hoping Park still has some of that magic left in her.

Bell said his usage of Park will depend on game situations -- for instance, Park will be a good option when South Korea need a last-gasp goal in a close game -- but he is also taking a long view to have Park ready for next year's FIFA Women's World Cup.

"We need to build Eun-seon up for the next 12 months and give her that chance to be able to perform," Bell said. "That's the plan, and she's happy with that."

Park said Bell has been her biggest supporter.

"The coach has been really protective of me. He tells the girls every day that they should treat me with extra caution," Park said with a smile. "So my teammates have been teasing me quite a bit. But I love it. I am very comfortable here."

The feeling is mutual. Kim, the 32-year-old captain, said she appreciates having another veteran around.

"I can lean on her and ask her for advice when the going gets tough," Kim said. "She has been around forever. I hope young players here can learn from her.

"She has been leading by example, and it seems like she hasn't missed a beat," Kim continued. "She has blended in so seamlessly. As captain, I am grateful for her presence. I am looking forward to playing with her." (Yonhap)

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