Player in Focus: Ahn Jung-hwan

In the summer of 2002 Ahn Jung-hwan was one of the biggest names in world futbol. He provoked questions in the House of Commons, bile in parts of Italy and adulation in Korea and headlines talking of a shift in the balance of power in the world of soccer. Two years on, the striker should, in theory, be at his peak, yet there are still more questions than answers about the mercurial Korean.

Born a stone's throw away from the South Korea's border with the North, The Lord of the Ring's (a nickname earned due to his trademark wedding ring-kissing goal celebration) journey started on Korea's south coast with the Daewoo Royals (now Busan I'cons). From 1998-2000, 87 games for the south coast team yielded an impressive 44 goals and a move on loan to Serie A side, Perugia.

The successful Hidetoshi Nakata has just left Perugia, giving Ahn a tough act to follow. The Korean press and fans dearly wanted their player to show that Korea's best export was better than Japan's. Unfortunately, the K-League's most valuable player of 1999 struggled in Central Italy. In two seasons at the futbol club, the then pony-tailed striker spent most of his time on the bench only making 29 appearances and scoring 5 goals.

Despite the difficult time he was going through on the pitch, Ahn's attitude on the occasions he returned to Korea did little to dispel doubts that he hadn't allowed his good looks, famous club, former Miss Korea girlfriend (now wife) and star status in Korea to go to his well-groomed head. When Guus Hiddink took over the reins of the Korea team in December 2000, he made it clear that he wasn't going to pick the team on reputation.

"When I first saw Ahn Jung-hwan he was really terrible", said the Dutchman. "I think he was conceited because he was playing in Italy. I thought I had to shake him up a bit. I teased, 'Who knows you in Italy?' Probably the people of Perugia know that Ahn Jung-hwan washes the benches."

Fortunately for Ahn and Korea but maybe less so for Italy, the then 25-year-old listened to the wily Hiddink. He knew what I was saying and started to apply himself.

In his last match against an Italian team, Perugia's not-so-super sub rose above an aging Paolo Maldini to nod in the golden goal that sent his country crazy. Perugia's President Luciano Guacci reportedly said that Ahn would never set foot in Italy again. "He was a phenomenon only against Italy and I have no intention of paying the salary of someone who has ruined Italian soccer".

Guacci later backtracked but the row ensured that Perugia would have to find another bench-warmer. It seemed to matter little as surely offers would be pouring in for one of the stars of the tournament.

There was talk of offers from English, Spanish and German Futbol clubs but strangely, nothing concrete seemed to materialise, maybe Ahn's poor record in Italy scared clubs off. The closest the World Cup hero seemed to get was a move to Blackburn Rovers which fell through due to work permit problems.

Frustrated in his attempts to move back to Europe, Asia's answer to David Beckham looked eastwards to Japan. In September 2002, he joined Shimuzu S-Pulse. Ahn performed well but was looking for a bigger and better stage than could be provided by the team based in the city of Shizuoka. In January 2004, J-League Champions Yokohama Marinos snapped up the Korean star on a one-year contract. The striker still hasn't given up on his European dream - as he recently said on Korea TV that he still intends to move to Europe otherwise he would have signed a longer deal with Yokohama.

His performances for the defending Japanese Champions suggest that he still has much to offer, after a fairly slow start the 'Lord of the Ring' came alive and his four goals in the final four games helped Yokohama clinch the first stage title. Despite his repeated wish to return to Europe, a growing number of his Korean fans have cast doubt on his ambition, claiming that he is happy in the safety zone of East Asia and has no desire to revisit his Italian experience. Others have mischievously opined that the star wishes to be close to his troublesome mum who has served time for fraud and has had gambling problems.

Although his form for his club is improving all the time, his international career seems to be at a crossroads. Ahn has been a regular starter for the national team since the World Cup without quite becoming an automatic choice. The Asian Cup which started in July seemed to be the perfect stage to show new coach Jo Bonfrere that he was the man to lead the Korean attack. Unfortunately the tournament did not go well for player or country.

Ahn started only one of Korea's four games in China, the opening goalless draw with Jordan. Subsequently, Ahn was reduced to a role that was uncomfortably familiar to him: as a substitute. Despite scoring two goals in this role, the former coach of Nigeria, Qatar and the UAE did not seem to be impressed. The Dutchman claimed that Ahn lacked stamina and wasn't able to play a full game. If this was true, it could have consoled the talented striker but unfortunately, Bonfrere added that it didn't really matter anyway as Ahn was replaceable unlike the similarly unfit Park Ji-sung of PSV.

It all seems a little unfair on the Korean. His 'meterosexual' image and good looks have helped to make him wildly popular in Korea but it is a double-edged sword, drawing criticism that he is more concerned with commercials than footballs. It is true that his face can often be seen on billboards and newspapers in Korea but the fact remains that Ahn Jung-hwan still is one of the few Korean players who can do something out of the ordinary. His recent wonder goal against Vietnam in the World Cup Qualifiers is proof of that.

The moment of truth will come next January as Korea's most marketable player finishes his contract and turns 29.
It will be then or never.