Montenegrin on cusp of South Korea call-up
South Korea is poised to break new ground and join its Asian rivals by using a nationalized player, with Montenegrin Dzenan Radoncic on the cusp of gaining the citizenship needed to represent the national team.
South Korea has long been one of the most homogenous nations in the world but is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, and Radoncic's possible elevation to wear the red shirt of the Taeguk Warriors is emblematic of an internationalization of the country.
He is one of an international community in Korea that has grown to 1.25 million out of a population of 50 million, around 100,000 of which are naturalized citizens.
There have been some foreign-born players in the past who received a Korean passport, such as former Russian international Denis Laktionov in 2003 and ex-Croatian U-21 international Jasenko Sabitovic the following year, but none have talked of playing for the national team.
Radoncic has been doing so for some time.
The tall and aggressive forward has long stood out in the K-League since joining Incheon United in 2004. Five years later he joined Seongnam Ilhwa and helped the club win the 2009 Asian Champions League title, though was suspended for the final, and in December he signed for Suwon Bluewings, one of the country's biggest clubs.
Now the former Partizan Belgrade forward, 28, wants to become a Korean citizen as soon as possible.
''I am here and ready for it. I'm looking forward to it. I think it will happen,'' Radoncic told The Associated Press. ''I would be an extra option for the national team head coach and I would do my best if I could play for South Korea.''
As an athlete, his case was heard quickly by the Olympic Committee of Korea, which decided in December to reject the initial application. Radoncic claimed the reason was because the national team was at the time without a head coach. Other reports have suggested it was due to an administrative error from his club Suwon. Suwon declined to comment on the matter.
Radoncic is happy to reapply to the Olympic Committee.
''We will try again definitely later this year,'' Radoncic said. ''If it doesn't happen then I have another six months or so then I can go the normal way.''
That normal way is the process followed by the vast majority of the 10,000 or so people who become Korean citizens every year. Most of these are married to South Korean citizens. International marriages in the country are becoming more common especially those between men from Korea's rural areas and Southeast Asian women.
For those without family members, five years of continuous residence, good conduct and an ability to pass a written oral and written exam on the Korean language and culture are necessary.
Radoncic may have arrived in Korea in 2004 but a short loan spell in Japan in 2007 means that he will only pass the five-year mark later this year. When he does, he is confident that he will check all the boxes.
''I know all the players, the language and the culture,'' Radoncic said. ''I like it here.''
''The reaction has been so great; I couldn't imagine it would be like this. Everybody has told me that they would love to see me on the national team. Of course, there have been a few negative articles but not many.''
New national team coach Choi Kang-hee is in favor of the idea.
''Selecting foreign players for clubs is different than selecting them for a national team,'' Choi said last month. ''I don't think Radoncic's naturalization is a bad idea. We would have to discuss it but personally, I consider it positively.''
The issue of naturalization has long been a contentious one in Asia, as it is in other parts of the world. The most controversial exponent has been Qatar which has a number of such players active in the national team such as Sebastian Soria who was born in Uruguay.
After Qatar tried to naturalize Brazilian star Ailton in 2004, FIFA introduced a rule that a player must be resident for two years in the country. That was later increased to five years. Prior to 2004, a player needed only the passport of a country to represent the national team.
Singapore is another small nation that has allowed long-term residents to represent the national team, while bigger countries such as Indonesia and Philippines have followed suit in recent years.
Cristian Gonzales was the first naturalized player to feature for Indonesia. The Uruguay-born striker, who has played in the country since 2003, made his international debut in 2010.
The Philippines' recent performances have improved, helped by an influx of players of Filipino descent who were born and raised, and play, in Europe.
Neil Etheridge is a goalkeeper with English Premier League club Fulham and has an English father and Filipina mother. James and Phil Younghusband have a similar background and were on the books of Chelsea. All now play for the national team.
Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Alessandro Santos have both played for Japan despite being born in Brazil. Tanaka's grandfather emigrated to Brazil at the age of 11. The defender started his J-League career in 2001 and gained citizenship in 2003. Santos moved to Japan at the age of 16 and made his debut for the national team eight years later in 2002. Wagner Lopes was the first Brazilian-born player to represent Japan in 1998.
Radoncic believes that an increasing number of naturalizations are not a problem.
''Many countries have done it and they wouldn't have if it had had a negative effect. I just want to have the chance to play for South Korea.''