Feature: Park Ji-Sung - Asia's Pioneer At The Pinnacle Of World Football

Manchester United will have the southern half of the Korean peninsula on their side as they take the field in Rome, mainly due to one special player...
Park Ji-sung drove half a nail into the coaching coffin of Ali Daei at the end of 2008. His well-taken equaliser for South Korea in their 2010 World Cup qualifier in Tehran gave the visitors a 1-1 draw and turned Iran’s solid start to the final round of qualification into an unspectacular one.

A subsequent home defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia led to Daei’s dismissal. Now Park is about to eclipse one of the Iranian icon’s achievements.

Daei is the Asian player to have come closest to participating in the UEFA Champions League final. In 1999, when playing for German giants Bayern Munich, the legendary striker sat on the bench as the Bavarian club lost a dramatic game to Manchester United.

Ten years on, United are about to play another final, this time against Barcelona. Park is waiting and hoping that he will become the first Asian player to play in the biggest club game in the world.

The 28-year-old, a popular figure in Manchester, is taking nothing for granted, however. He remembers last year, as do all Korean fans.

Then, the former PSV Eindhoven star played all 360 minutes of the team’s quarter-final and semi-final against Roma and Barcelona respectively, and played well.

But when it came to the final against Chelsea in Moscow, Park was left out of not only the starting eleven but the entire squad. It was a decision that surprised the English media and horrified the Korean one.

Millions in the Land of the Morning Calm stayed up into the early hours to watch one of their most famous sons do battle at the pinnacle of club football. The picture of a sweaty Park lifting the iconic trophy was just waiting to become the most popular screensaver on almost every computer south of the 38th Parallel.

It was a decision described by coach Sir Alex Ferguson as the most difficult of his career. As the Scot has been leading the English club for 23 years, his career is longer than most.

So it was no surprise that in the post-match press conference after the second leg of Manchester United’s win over Arsenal in the semi-final earlier this month, one of the first questions to Ferguson was asked by a Korean reporter.

You can guess what the question was. The reply was what Park and every fan - and these days he has many, not only in Korea, who appreciate his energy, intelligence and teamwork - wanted to hear. "I don’t think he’ll be disappointed," smiled the Scot.

The player himself will wait and see. "No-one knows until the start [who will be selected]. If I play I will do my best," Park told the press.

"It was very disappointing [last year] because players want to play in big games like the Champions League final.

"If they do not play it hurts. I think it was the biggest disappointment of my career. Our team wins titles and I am happy because I am in a good team but still it was heartbreaking."

It was a second close call for the player. He had scored against AC Milan for PSV Eindhoven in the 2005 semi-final only to watch as the Italians scored in the final minute to go to the final.

It is to Park’s great credit that he has bounced back from such disappointing episodes. He is a consistent and underrated performer and any suspicions that he was signed by the club to sell shirts in the Far East have long been dispelled.  

He said, “When I am in Korea I can’t walk down the streets. But I don’t want to be famous or popular; I just want to be a good player. When I was with PSV Eindhoven in Holland some people still thought Asian players weren’t good enough to play in Europe.

“It’s always good to rise to the challenge and prove them wrong. When I first came to United I had to prove my ability again. Now everyone knows I’m not just here just to sell shirts.”

European clubs are beginning to realise that players don’t sell as many shirts as once hoped. Success is much more important and there is none greater in club football than lifting the awkwardly shaped trophy, known as ‘Big Ears’.

And if Park can get his hands on such a prize, then he will go down in history as an Asian pioneer of the highest order.

John Duerden

Asia Editor