Flash back to 12 April 2011, when Manchester United beat Chelsea 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate) to advance to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. The crucial moment came in the 77th minute, just 30 seconds after Didier Drogba had give Chelsea a lifeline. Old Trafford had fallen silent, the crowd aware that another Chelsea goal would eliminate the home side. Antonio Valencia took the ball down the right wing, passed to Wayne Rooney, who laid it back for Ryan Giggs at the top of the Chelsea penalty box. On the left, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who had scored the opener drew away right-back Branislav Ivanović with a quick run while a Manchester united midfielder drifted into the space. Giggs found him with a clever pass, and the player chested down the ball before volleying it past the helpless Petr Cech, completely crushing Chelsea's morale and sending Manchester United through to the next round. The unexpected hero of this goal was none other than J. S. Park - Park Ji-Sung - who, according to many pundits prior to the match, was not even expected to start.
Flash back a bit further to 13 December 2010 when Manchester United beat then-closest title rivals Arsenal 1-0 to cement their position at the top of the Premier League. In the 41st minute, Edwin Van der Sar's goal kick was met by the head of Darren Fletcher. The ball came to Rooney, who headed it down to the right to Nani, who dribbled toward the Arsenal penalty box. His cross was deflected by Gael Clichy but was still met by a Manchester United player. The ball looped toward the left hand side of the net, hit the post, and went in. The man who scored the only goal of the match, gifting United priceless three points was, again, none other than J. S. Park.
The list goes on: the goal against AC Milan in the Champions League last season. His Premier League goals against Arsenal and Liverpool last season. His goal against Arsenal in the Champions League in the 2008-09 season. Even his goal against AC Milan in 2005, during his PSV Eindhoven days.
Each goal came as a surprise to most fans - a welcome surprise, yes, but a surprise nevertheless. It would not be a surprise had the goal scorer been Rooney, or Nani, or Giggs, but it was Park. Now the question is, how is a player who always comes through for us in these key matches constantly regarded as little more than a squad player - useful but far from world class? Also, why is he seen as such a hero in his native Korea in comparison to his compatriots?
To truly understand this seemingly paradoxical player, we must go back all the way to his origins. He was born in a small town called Goheung on 25 February 1981, but grew up in Suwon, a fairly large city just south of Seoul. He began playing football during his fourth year of elementary school, and throughout his school years, he earned recognition among coaches and club scouts for his dribbling skills, work rate, and intelligence on the pitch - qualities that would ultimately bring him success in Europe. What is stunning is that he has flat feet: in a sport in which a player must run for ninety minutes, covering up to ten kilometres, this condition can be a crucial disadvantage. Again, it was his self-discipline and football intelligence that allowed him to overcome it. However, he had a small, slight stature; despite his father's best efforts (his father gave Park all kinds of weird medicine, including frogs, so that he would grow), no professional club offered in a contract for this reason. He joined the Myongji University team, and during a training match with the South Korean Olympic Team, caught the eye of Huh Jung-Moo, who coached both the Olympic team and the national team. In this practice match, he skinned four defenders - something you wouldn't expect him to do today.
In 2000, in an AFC Asian Cup qualification match against Laos, Park debuted on the national team at the age of just 19 as a defensive midfielder, not the winger that he is today. He was not exactly a mercurial talent, with only mediocre performances. Still, a professional club at last offered to take him on, but ironically, it was not a Korean club. Park accepted the offer of Kyoto Purple Sanga of Japan. Shortly before his career took off in Japan, Park, as part of Korea’s Olympic team that boasted future stars such as Lee Chun-Soo and Lee Dong-Gook, played in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Though equal on points, Korea finished third in their group behind Chile and Spain on goal difference.
Kyoto Purple Sanga was not a powerhouse when Park joined; in fact in was playing in J-League Division Two, having been relegated in the 2000 season (in Asia football seasons run from spring to fall). However, in 2001, Park, a versatile midfielder, helped the club win the J2 League and gain promotion. The next season, the club finished a respectable fifth. More importantly, Park played a crucial role in the club’s first ever Emperor’s Cup (Japan’s equivalent of the FA Cup) triumph, scoring the equalizer with a header from a free kick and assisting the winner in a 2-1 win over Kashima Antlers. Even back then, Park had the ability to come through the big matches.
Park had already experienced tremendous success in 2002: the World Cup, hosted in Korea and Japan. Yes, the Koreans did benefit from some refereeing decisions, but which host nation hasn’t? That’s not the debate here. Park was a surprise inclusion by manager Guus Hiddink. While most of his teammates were already proven either in the K-League or on the international stage, Park was something of an anomaly. To the few Korean fans – and they were few – who recognized his name, he was but a mediocre defensive midfielder. Hiddink, however, employed him as the right forward of a 3-4-3 formation, thus becoming a winger. Park gained some media attention as he scored in two consecutive friendlies; he netted against England in a 1-1 draw and against France in a narrow 3-2 loss. In the main tournament that kicked off two weeks later, Park became a star. Korea won their opening match against Poland but drew against the USA. It all came down to their third group stage match against Portugal, a side that boasted the "Golden Generation," including Luis Figo, João Pinto, and Sérgio Conceição. Again, I admit, the Portuguese had two men sent off, but this game proved Park’s inherent affinity for the big games. Lee Young-Pyo put in a cross from the left; Park chested it and took it around a defender with his right thigh, then volleyed the ball into the net with his left.
He scored the only goal of the match in the 70th minute to send Korea into the round of 16 for the first time in its history. The argument stands: it doesn’t matter how much possession you have or whether you have a man advantage. What matter, in football, are goals. Park showed the world that he is the player to watch on the South Korean squad with his consistently-clutch performances. The Koreans’ fairy tale run continued, beating Italy and Spain before falling to Germany in the semi-finals, and then Turkey in the third place playoff. Park played every match and scored the second penalty in the shootout win over Spain.
Several players of the 2002 South Korean team, including Park, gained interest from European scouts. Right-back Song Chong-Gug joined Feyenoord, midfielder Lee Eul-Yong joined Trabzonspor of Turkey, and defensive midfielder Kim Nam-Il was signed on loan by Excielsor of the Netherlands. Both Lee and Kim returned to Korea after a single season. Song would play in Europe until the summer of 2005, when he would, like his compatriots, return to Korea. Park, despite rumours, stayed with Kyoto for the rest of the 2002 season. During the winter transfer window, he made the move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven, re-uniting with mentor Hiddink. PSV also completed the transfer of Park’s international teammate Lee Young-Pyo, the left back who assisted Park’s goal against Portugal. While Lee was an instant regular, making 15 league appearances during the 2002-03 season – an impressive statistic considering he joined in winter – Park failed to cement himself into the first team. Cultural and language barriers made blending in difficult, and injuries were constantly hampering his career. Although his team won the Eredivisie, it was not a good season for Park. Then-PSV captain, Mark van Bommel, publicly criticized the under-performing players, including Park. Even PSV fans started jeering him.
The following season, however, Park rose to the challenge, establishing himself as a starter. He made 28 appearances, scoring 6 times. However, PSV lost out to Ajax for the league title and finished third in their Champions League group, then was eliminated in the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup. The next season, Park went one step further. PSV stormed to the league title, with Park scoring 7 times in 28 appearances. He also scored in the final of the KNVB Cup in a 4-0 rout of Willem II, completing a domestic double for PSV. Where he truly shone, however, was Europe. In the first leg of the semi-finals of the Champions League, PSV was completely dominated by AC Milan, losing 2-0. However, Park was the only PSV player to play to his abilities. In the second leg, with PSV needing to overturn a 2 goal deficit, Park scored in the 9th minute to give his team hope. PSV was eliminated on away goals as the game finished 3-1 for the Dutch club. Later, prior to the 2006 World Cup, Van Bommel, former critic of Park, included in his ideal 11 Park, as right forward.
In 2005, Park, having caught the eyes of Sir Alex Ferguson with his performances in the Champions League, joined Manchester United for six million euro. Financially, this would prove to be a massive bargain; his match performances aside, he opened a huge market in Asia for the English club. Park, the 42nd most marketable athlete in the world in 2010, provided Manchester United with both popularity and shirt sales among Asian fans. Basically, with one tour of the Far East, Manchester United would earn more than twice Park’s transfer fee. Park is exactly the type of player Ferguson would value: hard-working, selfless, and versatile. He did not take long to integrate himself into a Manchester United side led by the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Rio Ferdinand and made 45 appearances in all competitions. He got his first goal for the English club against Birmingham City in the fifth round of the League Cup, scoring the second in a 3-1 win.
Manchester United would go on to win the competition after beating Wigan Athletic 4-0 in the final; Park played full time. However, the season would be a disappointment. Manchester United finished second in the league, a massive eight-point gap behind a Jose-Mourinho-managed Chelsea, and finished bottom of their Champions League group, managing to win only one game. For Park, it was not without personal success. He thought he had scored his first league goal for Manchester United against Fulham, but his strike was ruled as an own goal. On 9 April 2006, he scored his first league goal against none other than Arsenal, in a 2-0 win. In his first season, he showed Ferguson exactly what he could do in the big games, and that more was to come.
The 2006 World Cup turned out to be a slight disappointment for many Korean fans, who had high expectations after the success of 2002. After Korea won its opening game against Togo 2-1, it trailed against France after Thierry Henry scored. It was Park who came through, scoring a vital equalizer at the 81st minute and earning the Man of Match award. The situation was identical to that of 2002: a win and a draw after two games. However, Korea fell to Switzerland 2-0 and was eliminated. Park played full time in all three games and returned to England with a heightened reputation.
Although injuries plagued him during the 2006-07 season, he managed 14 appearances and 5 goals in the league; Park became the first South Korean to win the Premier League as Manchester United beat Chelsea to the title. After two successive seasons of Chelsea triumph, Ferguson switched tactics: he offloaded Van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid and made Cristiano Ronaldo the focus of United attacks. Manchester United became known for its powerful defence, characterized by Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, and veteran keeper Edwin van der Sar, and its lightning-quick counter-attacks, led by Ronaldo, Rooney, and Ryan Giggs. "Three Lungs" Park was key to this tactic as he, with his stamina, covered the holes in midfield left by more attack-minded teammates and helped in offense with his pace and intelligent runs.
The 2007-08 would be the greatest success in terms of trophies, with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Nani, and Anderson joining the club. Park, again, only managed 12 appearances and 1 goal (a header versus Fulham) in the league due to injuries. On the continental stage, however, he stamped his name to every fan in Europe with amazing performances in the quarter- and semi-finals. Park assisted Rooney’s goal in the first leg of the quarter-finals against Roma as United won 2-0; United won the second leg 1-0 as the English side cruised to the semi-finals, where Barcelona awaited. Park put in two man-of-match performances: covering 12 kilometres in both games, he shackled Lionel Messi and constantly pressured Xavi and Andres Iniesta. United won the tie 1-0 on aggregate.
Shockingly, in the final against Chelsea, Ferguson omitted Park not only from the starting 11 but also from the substitutes’ bench. The authoritative Scot described it as "the hardest decision of his career", citing Park’s lack of finishing as the reason. After the match, which United won on penalties, Park said, "The team won so I am happy. Personally it is frustrating not to play in such a big game. But there will be other opportunities." This showed exactly Park’s selfless character, putting the team before him. Still, players and fans alike began to realize that the key reason the trio of Ronaldo, Rooney, and Tevez was so devastating was that Park, the unsung hero, protected the defence.
The 2008-09 season ended with a third consecutive league title; Park scored twice in 25 appearances. Park also played full time as Manchester United beat Ecuadorian outfit LDU Quito 1-0, but, again, it was the Champions League that revealed his worth to the team. In the second leg of the semi-finals against Arsenal, Park scored the first goal in a 3-1 win, taking advantage of a mistake by Kieran Gibbs. He was also involved in his team’s third goal, applauded as the greatest counter-attacking goal in recent memory. Less than fifteen seconds after Vidic headed clear an Arsenal cross, United, on the break, scored. Ronaldo backheeled the ball to Park, who dribbled to the centre circle. He found Rooney on the left; the English striker put in a low cross for Ronaldo, who scored.
Three weeks later, Park made history, becoming the first Asian to play in a Champions League final. However, Manchester United was defeated 2-0 by an almighty Barcelona team, with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi dominating United.
The 2009-10 season saw Park sign a contract extension with Manchester United, which would keep him in England until 2012. He scored only four goals in all competitions that season, but three were against the big teams. He scored United’s third after a great solo run against Arsenal on 31 January 2010 in a 3-1 win. On 10 March, in a 4-0 win over AC Milan in the second leg of the round of 16 of the Champions League, Park again scored United’s third with a right-footed effort. On 21 March, Park scored one of the most important goals of his Manchester United career, the winning goal against bitter rivals Liverpool in a 2-1 win. He scored a diving header from Darren Fletcher’s cross.
However, the season ended with only a League Cup trophy, having lost the league to Chelsea and having been eliminated in the quarter-finals by Bayern Munich in Europe.
This season saw Park grow even further, especially in terms of goals. His growth in finishing ability is particularly notable as Ferguson had labelled it his weakness when leaving the South Korean out of the 2008 Champions League final. He thus overcame another obstacle in his career, something he has been doing since amateur days. He scored a brace against Wolverhampton Wolves as United won 2-1, his second goal coming deep in injury time. He scored against Blackburn Rovers and Arsenal in two consecutive matches; his goal was the only goal of the match in the game versus Arsenal as discussed above. However, his participation in the 2011 Asian Cup in January proved costly as he returned to England with yet another injury. He returned to score a decisive goal against Chelsea in the Champions League. Recently, on 8 May, Park turned in another man-of-match performance in a 2-1 win over Chelsea. Just 36 seconds after kick-off, Park put Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez through on goal with a superb pass. The Mexican duly scored, putting United ahead with less than a minute into the game. Park constantly harried and pressured the Chelsea players, with Mark Lawrenson of Match of the Day commenting that Park "worked tirelessly." This was the game that got Park recognized with a doubt. No longer are pundits putting in Nani or Valencia ahead of Park in starting-11 predictions. No longer are the goals of Rooney and Chicharito more applauded than the endless efforts from Park, a vital asset to Manchester United.
List of Honours
Kyoto Purple Sanga
· J. League Division 2: 2001
· Emperor's Cup: 2002
· Eredivisie: 2002–03, 2004–05
· KNVB Cup: 2004–05
· Johan Cruijff-schaal: 2003
· Premier League: 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2010-11
· League Cup: 2005–06, 2008–09, 2009–10
· Community Shield: 2010
· UEFA Champions League: 2007–08, 2010-11 (hopefully)
· FIFA Club World Cup: 2008
· UEFA Champions League Best XI: 2005
· KNVB Cup MVP: 2004–05
· Eredivisie Best XI: 2004–05
· Nominee for Ballon d'Or: 2005
· FIFA.com Best Asian Player in Europe: 2007
· KFA Footballer of the Year: 2010
"When I went to see him play in those Champions League semi-finals for PSV Eindhoven in 2005, I thought this is a player who understands football. He is intelligent, disciplined and can play different positions. I had no issues about that at all. Someone is always going to take a runner on something like selling shirts. But you could say that about every player we have signed." Sir Alex Ferguson, after signing Park in 2005.
"He's a real players' player, up there with best in world for movement, and so intelligent and direct with runs off the ball. His work-rate is unreal, he adds a dimension no other player brings to the team. He’s underrated, a real top player." Rio Ferdinand
"He does dirty work for the bigger stars. I appreciate those people, always. His skills? He is tireless, can go for 90 minutes, he’s a smart player and is very determined." Guus Hiddink
"He may not get the headlines but none of the players underestimate his quality. He's a nightmare in training, he never stops running." Gary Neville
"Ji doesn't get the credit he deserves. He makes so many great runs. He's like a whippet and just keeps going." Wayne Rooney
"There is only one Park on the pitch. I'm telling you this because you might be confused, but there is only one Park. But it feels as if there are three Parks, one in attack, one in midfield, and one in defence." A French commentator during a match between PSV and Olympique Lyonnais