Aashish Gadhvi waves an emotional goodbye to the captain marvel, Park Ji-sung.
The Asian Cup brought an end to many things. It brought an end to Korea’s hopes of claiming the Asian Cup for the first time since hosting the tournament in 1960. It brought about the end of legendary left back Lee Young-pyo’s career as he decided to call it a day at the age of 33. However few people believed the rumours that captain Park Ji-sung, the heartbeat of the team and life-blood of Korean football, was also about to call it a day. At the age of 29 it seemed unfathomable for Park draw the curtains on his international career. But as soon as Korea lost to Japan in the semi-finals the news was confirmed that the captain was retiring from national duty. Although the ramifications of his retirement are yet to be felt in full force, it is clear that from here on there will be a massive void in Korean football which will be a huge task to fill.
Park’s story is perhaps what makes him so popular amongst the Korean football. An unconventional spider-man like tale, Park was a literal boy wonder. He was an everyman who fought against the odds to make it to the very top, with a very difficult beginning. Park began playing football from a very young age, and even in the early days he was up against it. In school his skill and energy was well-received but his size and strength was questioned. But despite this, Park preserved and proved the critics wrong, something which will be a running theme in this story. After being rejected by various clubs he began training with Myongji University, who were given the chance to train with the Korean Olympic team. As fate would have it, the national team was managed by Huh Jung-moo who would be Park’s manager in the national team years later. It was Huh who gave Park his first breakthrough, selecting him for the 2000 Sydney Olympic squad, instead of the under 20 squad which was expected for a player of that age. In that tournament Korea finished 3rd in their group, failing to advance to the next round but only due to goal difference as they were equal in points with a Spanish team which featured the likes of Joan Capdevila, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez, who all played for the World Cup winning team of 2010. It was clear at that stage that this generation were capable of great things. But few expected much from Park. A right back in that tournament, he did a decent job, but other players such as Lee Chun-soo and Lee Dong-gook took the headlines. In club football Park was picked up by Japanese second division team Kyoto Purple Sanga. The signing of such an unknown player raised eyebrows. But it was Guus Hiddink, who was appointed national team manager in the run up to the 2002 World Cup, whom Park himself credits with changing his life.
As the 2002 World Cup drew nearer, pressure was on Guus Hiddink to get South Korea to last 16 of the competition on home soil — a seemingly impossible task, seeing as Korea had never won a World Cup match in all their previous attempts. His reaction was to search high and low for Korean talent which he could mould in his image. He called Park up from Kyoto and crucially, changed his position from a defensive player to an offensive winger, utilising his speed and work rate. Korea started brilliantly in the 2002 World Cup, beating a poor Poland side but then drawing 1-1 with the USA. The final game of the group stage was against Portugal who they had to at least draw with to go through to the next round. Korea burst out of the blocks all guns blazing in that game, and the Portuguese looked like rabbits caught in headlights. In the second half, Lee Young-pyo crossed a ball deep into the box after spotting Park open on the right. In one amazing moment, Park controlled the ball down on his chest, chipped it over the oncoming defender and then smashed it through the legs of Portuguese goalkeeper Vitor Baia. This stunning piece of skill was only topped by the celebration in which Park ran up to his manager Guus Hiddink and jumped on him in a loving embrace. Earlier in the tournament Park was alone in the changing rooms nursing an injury at which point Guus Hiddink walked in on him with an interpreter and told Park how impressed he was with his mentality and that he had what it takes to be a great player. According to Park it is this moment which gave him the belief that he could do it and he claims that Guus Hiddink changed his life with those words. During the tournament Park went on to play brilliantly, even scoring a calm and collected penalty against Spain in the quarterfinal penalty shootout. After the tournament was said and done, Park had established himself as one of the best young footballers in the world.
He then returned to Kyoto, helping Purple Sanga win the Emperor’s Cup for the first time in their history and even scored in the final. But his time in Asia was soon to come to an end as Guus Hiddink soon signed him and Lee Young-pyo up for PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch Eredivisie. This was to be yet another test for Park who was playing outside of Asia for the first time. To make matters worse he struggled with injuries and also suffered from being compared to Lee Young-pyo who had become a sensation at the club. The blessing in disguise for Park was the departure of Arjen Robben in a big money move to Chelsea, allowing Park to stabilise himself for the first time in midfield, in his favoured winger position. He peaked during the 2004-2005 season where he scored against AC Milan in the Champions League semi final as many people saw PSV Eindhoven as the best team in Europe. While they won the first leg 3-1 they lost agonisingly 2-0 in the semi final with Park missing a golden opportunity to see his team through. The final would have been against the ever unpredictable Liverpool so the result would have been anyone’s guess. But Park’s real journey into European football had only just begun, as English powerhouses Manchester United came calling. Many people were once again sceptical of this move, with the usual statements of selling shirts being on people’s minds. Once again Park proved everyone wrong. He once again started slowly but still managed to show everyone that he had what it took to make it at the top level. There was also a moment in a Champions League match against Lille in which Ryan Giggs came off for Park and handed the captain’s armband to him, with the intention that Park would no doubt hand it to someone else. Park instead decided to put the armband on himself becoming the first Asian to captain Manchester United! He also scored his first league goal in a vital 2-0 victory against Arsenal. But with the close of that season came the 2006 World Cup, and a return to national duty.
The 2006 World Cup in Germany was less successful for Korea. Coming off the back of the incredible 2002 tournament was never going to be an easy task but with the Koreans being labelled as flukes determination was higher than ever to get Korea past the group stage. Despite a first game win over Togo (the first World Cup victory on foreign soil) and a late goal from Park against France to pull off an unlikely 1-1 draw, Korea lost 2-0 to Switzerland and were once again knocked out at the group stage. This massive blow would have undoubtedly made Park more determined to prove his worth at Manchester United where rumours of his transfer were always present. In the following years Park improved a great deal and in the 2007-2008 season Manchester United were on course to claim another historic treble as they had done in 1999. Park’s best displays of the season came in the Champions League where he played brilliantly against Roma in the quarter final, but perhaps his best game for Manchester United was against Barcelona in the second leg of the semi finals. Manchester United won the game 1-0 but Park was awarded the man of the match for his energetic display suffocating the Barcelona midfield and hurrying them on the ball. Despite all of this it Park failed to even make it onto the bench for the final against Chelsea, failing to become the first Asian player to play in a Champions League final. He did however become the first Asian player to win the competition as Manchester United won the final. This decision was described by Sir Alex Ferguson as one of the most difficult of his career. The following season he made up for this, playing in the Champions League final as Manchester United reached it again, but this time they were defeated 2-0 by a Barcelona side who had just established themselves as arguably the greatest football team of all time. In the same year Park was given the national team’s captaincy for the first time and he quickly established himself as a captain marvel, when once again people questioned the decision. During the rest of the qualification process Park was a force of nature, finishing as their top goal scorer with 5 goals and scoring two memorable late goals against Iran which effectively knocked them out. Park was the captain of his country, and he was letting everyone know it. Korea had qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with swagger, and this time Park was determined not to suffer the same fate as 2006. This was his team, they looked up to him as the big brother and he led by example.
The 2010 campaign begun against the defensive unit of Greece, who were expected to steam roller the Koreans over with their brute force. This was not the case as Korea took an early lead with a set piece goal from Lee Jung-soo. In the second half, Park stepped up to the plate, as he pounced on the lost ball in the Greek half, steamed past two defenders all the way into the penalty box and chipped the ball over the goalkeeper. Manchester United fans often criticised Park for not being able to do anything but run around, and that he wasn’t actually a particularly good footballer but just had a lot of energy. What they didn’t see was the role that he played for the national team, which was attacking, skilful and playmaking. This goal was a perfect example of the Park that few people in the English media had seen. Korea were then thumped 4-1 against Argentina as Lionel Messi put on a magic show, but thanks to a classic 2-2 draw with Nigeria they qualified for the last 16 on foreign soil for the first time. Park became only the second Korean captain to achieve this, joining the legendary 2002 captain Hong Myung-bo. His place in Korean football history was secured.
Back at Manchester United after the World Cup, Park continued to play well. With Wayne Rooney’s dip in form many people questioned whether Manchester United had what it took to score the goals they needed. When Wolverhampton Wanderers threatened to beat United at home it was Park who stepped up to fill in the void with two brilliant goals, the latter being an injury time screamer which tore the roof off Old Trafford. Park was finally showing the form for Manchester United which he had shown for Korea for years and was threatening to receive recognition from the English media, who for years had treated him with scepticism and ignorance. It was in this good form that Park set off the 2011 Asian Cup and rumours of his retirement from the international game soon spread. Sadly Korea were not able to win the competition, being knocked out by arch rivals Japan in the semi finals. It was in this game that Park ended his international career, on a down note, a somewhat tragic end for a player who had given so much for his country. The Asian Cup was the one medal missing from his collection and not getting it will hurt. But by the end of his career he had gained 100 caps and scored 13 goals, including being the only Korean to score in three consecutive World Cups and had given so much for Korean football around the world.
It is difficult for myself to write an article like this about someone who I admire so much. When there was little going on in the world of Korean football, Park was always achieving great things and always gave me something to write about. His contributions on the pitch were matched with his contributions off it. A quiet man who attracts little controversy, he is the model professional, a footballer interested in nothing but football. Often described as shy and reserved, he played with players who were the exact opposite for club (Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo) and country (Lee Dong-gook, Lee Chun-soo) and is still standing whereas others have fallen by the wayside. When thinking of him and Lee Young-pyo it is difficult not to draw parallels with Manchester United legends Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and it is unfathomable to imagine how United will fill the void left by those players. Korean football has a lot to do in the coming years to replace these legends. Park will always be remembered as a hard worker in England, if not for many other things. The English media never acknowledged him in the way that he deserved. Park was never the most talented of players but he was certainly the hardest working and had the toughest mentality. It is easy to forget that having the mental strength to adapt to his play on the field is one thing but having the mental strength to leave your home at a young age, adapt to different cultures (he speaks Japanese, Dutch and English) and do something which only one other Korean has successfully done is an achievement that should not be taken lightly. His accomplishments even at Manchester United were often overlooked, but he has time to change that. But when you have the love and admiration of millions of Koreans why would you need anything else? He has overcome scepticism, career-threatening injuries, transfer speculation (which continues even now), being dropped in various circumstances, adapting to European cultures and even being flat-footed and has never done anything else but carried himself with pride and dignity and stayed dedicated to the game he loves so much. He may never be loved by Koreans as much as Cha Bum-kun, but he is a very close second. With his achievements in the World Cup and with Manchester United, which he can add to, he is the most decorated Asian player of all time and has paved the way for Koreans in the Premier League, for which Lee Chung-yong is reaping the rewards. Most importantly he put Korea on the map and became a symbol of Korea in the global age alongside the likes of Rain, Jeon Ji-hyun, Park Chan-ho and Ban Ki-moon. He was the source of pride for many Koreans, that despite adversities, they too could achieve something and get the recognition they deserved. We may never see another like him, but just be thankful we were around to see him now. Ladies and gentleman, please stand for the crown prince of Korean football, the one, the only, Park Ji-sung.