It has been a strange few weeks for Korean football and the fact that the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup is about to start has almost been forgotten.
National team head coach Choi Kang-hee has been one of the most successful coaches in Korea and Asia over the last few years but increasingly in recent weeks he has been looking stressed. That never happened when he was leading Jeonbuk Motors to domestic and continental titles but his position has changed. With the national team, he has even tried to smile in front of the cameras; it is all a little unnerving for fans.
The first issue was all about Park Chu-young. Even when it comes to football, the fact that Korea's star striker had played just seven minutes of Premier League action since joining Arsenal last summer, would have put his place in the squad for the friendly against Spain and the matches against Qatar and Lebanon in doubt.
But this was not just about the football. The March announcement that the player had been given the opportunity to delay his military service for 10 years due to the fact he had been granted a right of residency in Monaco (after a three year spell at the club) overshadowed pretty much everything in Korean fotoball. The nation was divided among those that were happy to see Park complete his duty in his mid-thirties and those that saw an already privileged person gaining another advantage not open to the average man on the street.
Choi was caught in the middle. Attempts to get Park to talk to the Korean media were, according to KFA officials, refused by the player. In the build-up to the announcement of the squad, there were unsuccessful attempts to contact Park and in the end, he was omitted from the squad. “The door is always open,” said Choi but something will have to happen before Park can walk through it. He has said nothing, nobody actually knows where he is and there are suspicisons that he does not really want to play for the national team.
In the absence of the Arsenal player, Choi is keeping faith with his Jeonbuk star striker from the last couple of years. Lee Dong-gook has been scoring plenty of goals in the K-League and in Asia for a while now and is likely to start against Qatar and Lebanon.
The coach has also been looking to another Jeonbuk favourite to provide the ammunition for the Lion King as well as add to the team’s firepower himself. The only problem is that the player Choi has in mind is not actually Korean.
Eninho has been adding Brazilian flair to the K-league since 2007 and came into his own after joining Jeonbuk in 2009. A creator, finisher and dead-ball specialist, he was just what Choi wanted.
"The Korean national football team manager is an imperative position," Choi said earlier in May. "It has to win by any means possible; thus, I will try my best to do everything in my power." The debate grew as the coach acknowledged. "The issue has deviated in a way I have not imagined. If I proceed with the plan for my personal gain, I should be held accountable for it."
The Korean FA took the issue to the Korea Olympic Committee (KOC) in mid-May. The hope was that the body would recommend to the Ministry of Justice that Eninho should be fast-tracked into dual-nationality. In mid-May, the committee knocked back the initial request, saying that the country had ample alternatives to the Brazilian.
Choi was not impressed. "I wonder if the KOC seriously looked into his performance and sincerity. I would like to ask if they know how desperate the situation is regarding the manager asking for special naturalization for him. It may be against Korean cultural norms, but I want him."
The KFA tried again on May 19, confident that legally, there was no reason for the KOC to refuse but the outcome was the same.
"There was lot of debate and thoughtful consideration, but we didn't find significant factors to change our original result from the first review," KOC Secretary General Choi Jong-jun said after the meeting. “Special naturalization gives a person dual citizenship and waives naturalization tests, but in exchange for that, a basic understanding of Korean culture and language is essential. However, we thought he lacked effort in those parts.”
The KFA eventually admitted defeat and the issue has been put to bed - for now. There are other things to think about, not least the upcoming World Cup qualifiers in Qatar on June 8 and at home to Lebanon on June 12. All are relieved that there is finally some football to talk about.
Korean Soccer football