The Influence of Park Ji-Sung on South Korea

Park Ji Sung

South Korea is a wonderful country, but it’s also a tough one to settle in to if you don’t speak much Korean. As accommodating as the Korean people are, they can only do so much given the language barrier. If you’re English however, it gets easier to strike up a connection with three simple words:

Park Ji-Sung.

Park had left Manchester United in 2012 and has been retired since 2014, but he still remains an incredibly popular figure in South Korea, a country that I would argue is very much baseball country. Say the man’s name and watch faces of all ages smile.

Football fever hit the Asian continent in 2002 when South Korea and Japan co-hosted the World Cup. At age 19 Park put his name on the football map in a decisive match against Portugal in the final group game. South Korea needed a point to progress but in the 70th minute, Park chested the ball and slotted the ball home to give the co-hosts the win.

The Korean team would ride this momentum all the way to the semi-finals, and eventually a 4th place finish. No other Asian team has even come close to matching this feat. After the World Cup heroics, coach Guus Hiddink decided to return to the Netherlands and two players decided to follow him to PSV, Lee Young-Pyo and Park Ji-Sung.

Koreans very much embrace the big European leagues and frustratingly they embrace European leagues more than the K-League, but this gave Korean fans an excuse to tune into the European game and see more of the players that they had welcomed into the country just a couple of months earlier.

Lee settled into life at PSV fairly quickly, but Park was struggling with injuries. However, the injuries did allow Park time to acclimatise into Dutch life without the pressure of the game, and the departure of Arjen Robben to Chelsea allowed Park more game time to prove his worth.

In the 2004-2005 season, Park made an impressive contribution in terms of goals and assists, forming a solid midfield with Philip Cocu, Mark van Bommel, DaMarcus Beasley and Johan Vogel that would help PSV lift the Eredivisie title and reach the semi-final of the Champions League.

Fans of PSV embraced Park so much that they even wrote a song called “Song For Park”, and he was named alongside huge names Shevchenko, Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Adriano as a nominee for the UEFA Best Forward in 2005.

This was the first time that any Asian player had played a key role in a Champions League semi-final run (in what was a very much unfancied PSV side, no less) and the first time that an Asian player stood alongside Ballon d’Or and Champions League winners as the best forwards in Europe.

Unfortunately, Eredivisie clubs are no longer as big as they once were so when Manchester United came calling PSV had to sell Park, who would become the second Asian player to play for Manchester United.

Thankfully, he had much more of an impact than Dong Fangzhuo.

Cynically, it could be argued that Park was signed to further United’s influence on the Asian market and therefore increase revenue. During his time in Manchester, Park had earned the trust of Sir Alex Ferguson, the adulation of the fans and had silenced the cynics who claimed that he was a glorified cash cow.

Whilst Park never really had much technical ability, his fitness was second to none and earned him the nickname “Three-Lungs Park”. Park became the go-to player for the big games – in matches against AC Milan he was assigned the task of marking Andrea Pirlo, which many players have struggled to do.

Park completely nullified the threat of Pirlo in both a PSV and United shirt, which led to the quote in I Think, Therefore I Play:

“The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron.”

Frequent knee injuries would once again become an issue for Park. In 2007, he was sent to the States for specialist treatment on the recurring problem and was forced to miss most of the season. However, he had contributed enough games to become the first Asian to win a Premier League winners medal.

Unfortunately, he was not selected for the 18-man squad in the 2008 final against Chelsea, but his contribution to the campaign meant that he was allowed to lift the trophy and become the first and so far only Asian player to win the Champions League.

Park also has the distinction of being the only Asian player to play in four Champions League semi-finals and the only Asian player to play in two Champions League finals.

Other Asian players have come close to matching these feats. Junichi Inamoto was a part of Arsenal teams that had won the league but didn’t play in any games, and Shinji Kagawa has won 2 Bundesliga titles (one in a league/cup double) and also has a Premier League medal, but neither have come close to the consistency in Europe that Park Ji-Sung has.

It wasn’t just his fitness that made him a key player in the big games, he could also score in the them too. He has goals in the Champions League, goals against Liverpool and many against Arsenal to his name. With performances like this, he was always going to be loved in Manchester and now South Korea had a reason to be proud of their football.

Injuries meant that Park couldn’t start every game and he did have periods out of the first team, which annoyed South Korea slightly, but over the course of his time in Manchester, he proved that Asian players are more than just money makers that are signed to tap into a stereotypically obsessed market.

Over 200 appearances for United and 13 trophies later, game time was limited at United and he went to join QPR, and then later return to PSV on-loan. Park had already made his mark on the European game earning the respect of the greatest managers and players alike.

South Korea have been unable to replicate their 2002 exploits but still have players in Europe, most notably Son Heung-Min, but none have even come close to reaching the success of Park Ji-Sung.

Take a quick walk around Suwon and you can still see the World Cup signposts, although they are very much faded now. 15 years since South Korea made football history, they are still proud of that achievement and are proud of Park Ji-Sung but much like the signs in Suwon, I get the feeling that interest in the Korean game is fading.

K-League matches are great, but the stadiums are not even close to filling one tier. The top tier of most stadiums is used for decoration.

Korean clubs don’t do too badly in the Asian Champions League either. Suwon have won it a couple of times and Jeonbuk are the current holders. However, despite most clubs, particularly the Bluewings, trying to adopt a kind of “Ultra Culture” akin to that of Germany, you will still see jerseys of European clubs at even the biggest K-League fixtures.

Park Ji-Sung will forever be a hero in South Korea, so far he’s the only Asian footballer to truly claim that he conquered the supposedly biggest league in the world and the supposedly biggest club competition in the world. He is the only Asian footballer to have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s biggest names on their level.

But at the moment, the road signs and the stadiums are simply an image of what once was, and may never be again, for Korean football.

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