Nicklas Bendtner has played just ten minutes for Juventus to date, but already feels confident that he is benefiting from his Italian experience. “I have never trained this hard in my life,” said the striker this week following Denmark’s World Cup qualifying draw against Bulgaria. “We have two sessions a day! I feel super-fit, so much so that against Bulgaria I played 90 minutes, scored, and wasn’t tired at the end.”
He would go on to state his eagerness to eventually convert this year’s loan into a permanent deal. First, though, Bendtner needs to convince his new coaches of his ability to contribute. If a Tuesday night qualifier against an Italy side featuring many Juventus players would appear to provide him with the perfect opportunity to showcase his talents, then the story of Ahn-Jung Hwan might just give him pause for thought.
If Ahn’s position in the summer of 2002 was not quite the same as Bendtner’s today, there were at the least superficial similarities. A young forward who had made his name abroad, the South Korea international had also arrived in Serie A on a loan deal, joining Perugia in the summer of 2000 and subsequently having the arrangement renewed a year later.
Like Bendtner, Ahn had no doubts about his own abilities. He might not, as the Dane infamously did while at Arsenal, have declared himself to be one of the best forwards in the world, but he did immediately suggest that he could outstrip one of his club’s greatest ever players. “Within six months I can be better than Hidetoshi Nakata,” stated Ahn at his unveiling. Instead he struggled, just as the Juventus player has so far, to even get in the team.
By 2002, Ahn had enjoyed a far longer run at establishing himself in Italy than Bendtner has, spending two full seasons with Perugia but scoring just five goals in thirty games. Nevertheless it was expected that he would return again for another year. That was until he made the fatal mistake of scoring against Italy in that summer’s World Cup.
Ahn’s was not just any goal, but a Golden one; his header in the 27th minute of extra time eliminated Italy under the sudden death format in place at the time. Some of Italy’s players, livid at a series of perceived refereeing injustices throughout the game, went on a rampage in the changing rooms. But their anger was nothing compared to that of the Perugia owner, Luciano Gaucci.
“He will never set foot in Perugia again,” raged Gaucci to the Italian newspapers. “He only decided to play like a superstar once he was up against Italy. I consider this behaviour to be not only a wound to my national pride, but also an offensive act against a country which opened its doors to him two years ago … I have no intention of paying a salary to one who was the ruin of Italian football.”
Gaucci would even invite the player to “go back to Korea and earn 100 lira (equivalent at the time to roughly five cents) per month”, yet after an international backlash he quickly reversed field. With debates taking place even at the European parliament in Brussels over whether the owner ought to be punished on the grounds of racism, Gaucci suddenly decided to take up the option of extending Ahn’s loan from Busan IPark for another year.
Ahn, understandably, was no longer so keen on that arrangement. “We have no intention of having any relationship with someone who treated him like a criminal after the goal against Italy,” insisted one of the player’s agents. An agreement was eventually reached whereby the player would return to Italy on the understanding that he would immediately be allowed to move on.
That, though, proved easier said than done. Blackburn and West Ham attempted to bring the player to England, only for complications with work permits to eventually put them off. By the end of August, Ahn had failed in his stated aim of finding another club in Europe. Instead he would wind up signing for Shimizu S-Pulse, a team who were at the time struggling in the bottom-half of the Japanese top-flight.
Further embarrassment was to follow. In mid-December the Japanese and Korean press excitedly reported that the player had been invited to take part in a match to celebrate the centenary of Real Madrid. But it soon emerged that the reported phone call had never taken place. “Maybe the Asian newspapers confused him with [Oliver] Kahn,” observed Paolo Tomaselli dryly in Italy’s Corriere della Sera.
Quite the opposite of being invited to take part in glamorous exhibitions, it was instead a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for Ahn and European football. Despite an impressive World Cup showing—he had also scored against the USA and been a key member of a team who reached the tournament’s semi-finals, helping to knock out Spain—Ahn had no scouts banging down his door.
His agents would eventually engineer a move to France’s FC Metz in the summer of 2005, though he would last there only until the following February. He spent the remainder of the season with Duisburg in the Bundesliga but again failed to impress. Each team was relegated from their respective divisions in the summer of 2006, and Ahn returned to Korea with the Suwon Bluewings. He has since had another stint at Busan, before finishing his career with Dalian Shide in China’s Super League.
In reality, of course, his disappearance from the European football scene had far less to do with his goal against Italy than the fact that, in the end, he had not been good enough to stick. Ahn did not help his own cause by ruling out any further clubs in Italy after Gaucci’s, but between trials with Premier League clubs and his stints in Metz and Duisburg, he was given a fair crack of the whip elsewhere.
Bendtner need not fear such a fate both because he has already done enough in his career to ensure that other European top-flight clubs will show an interest even if things were not to work in Turin. The fact that he is at Juventus at all tells its own story – even if he was not the club’s first choice this summer.
Most crucially, though, he will does not have to deal with an owner like Gaucci, a man who during his time as president of Perugia waged constant battles against both the Italian Football Federation and his own managers, whom he chopped and changed at will. Much mirth was had at Gaucci’s expense after his attempts to sign Serie A’s first female player were blocked, but nobody stopped him from signing Muammar Gaddaffi’s son a year later.
While Juventus’ directors no doubt have their own feelings about the national side, their greatest hope this Tuesday will simply be to see all of their players come through the game unscathed. That will include Bendtner, whether or not he chooses this moment to play like a superstar.