An ode to Park Ji Sung - The man with three lungs
The most revered players of all-time more often than not, spell their exit from sport with a grand reception. Javier Zanetti, Carles Puyol, Alessandro Del Piero and Deco were the most recent players who continued that rich tradition. While I mean no condescension on their careers, the retirement and stepping down of lesser known players is hardly ever recognized. One such man who has taken one last look at football is former Manchester United star Park Ji Sung, fondly known as the ‘man with three lungs’.
Well, not everyone would call him a star. Because the way he portrayed himself, he never looked the greatest player on the field. Off the field, he couldn’t speak English and his Asian accent made him a quiet person outside the pitch. Ji Sung Park, in his own country is a phenomenon and the greatest sporting pioneer. Rather contrary to that, his fame in Korea never spread across Europe.
Park was one of the most important people responsible for spreading the incumbent popularity of European Football to the farther reaches of Asia.
“I enjoyed playing football. I have achieved more than I have thought I would. I’m truly grateful for all the support I have received and I will live the rest of my life thinking how I can pay it back.”
Those were his last words to the footballing world as he steps down after a charity match on May 28 against a team from Korea to fund the victims of a disaster. He had accomplished the journey of a lifetime and what an experience it was.
Starting from the bottom as a player in the Myongji University team, Kyoto Purple Sanga, a Japanese second division offered him a contract. It was there that Park started establishing himself as a physically tough and energetic player. During his two year stint at the club, he had led them to promotion to the top flight and won the Emperor’s Cup with them. The Emperor’s Cup was the premier cup competition of Japan.
This victory was the first in Sanga’s history and Park was the hero. With such an impressive resume, Park was immediately called on to the national team for the 2002 World Cup. Already having played the Sydney Olympics in 2000, this call-up showed the amount of trust the national team had in him.
The pinnacle of his international career was when South Korea reached the semifinals in the 2002 World Cup only to lose out to Germany after a solitary goal by Michael Ballack. Park was instrumental in South Korea’s run and his biggest moment came in the final match of the group stage. Needing a win to advance, the scores were level on the 70 minute mark with neither team having scored a goal. As South Korea earned a corner, Park, who had been positioned at the far post, controlled a bouncing ball only to turn the defender and unleash an unstoppable shot at the Portuguese goalkeeper. As the ball crossed the line, thousands of South Koreans erupted in joy as the Park’s name resonated across the stadium.
For the first time ever, an Asian team was progressing beyond the group stages and Park was the man who had provided the opening. As their home support never ceased, the South Korean team carried their momentum into the quarterfinals, where they win against Spain in a shootout. Park had been excellent throughout the match and scored the second penalty.
Park’s dream was to play for the Taegeuk Warriors and his first ever World Cup with them, had given him so much more. Although they finished fourth, the 2002 World Cup was the greatest sporting moment for millions of South Koreans and their success was unprecedented as the country had never won a World Cup match before this tournament. However, behind all this was the mastermind, Guus Hiddink.
Guus Hiddink always had an inclination to hard-working players and Park fit the bill more than anyone else. Park, to this day states firmly that Hiddink was the man behind his rise and had a massive influence on his career. As the millions present in South Korea gave their hearts out to Hiddink, he decided to return home a hero and was immortalized in South Korea with a museum and an honourary citizenship.
Making an impact in Europe
As Hiddink returned to PSV Eindhoven, he brought along with him, the diminutive South Korean who had impressed him so much.
Park’s injury troubles came to the fore as he was unable to cement a place in the starting line-up initially at PSV. However, his acclimatization over the course of time helped him to get back on his feet. Arjen Robben’s departure at the start of the 2004-05 season meant that Park was given more opportunities.
Quietly, yet notably, Park was making a marked impact on the team and the silent work of Hiddink behind the scenes was clearly established. With two years of European experience under his belt, including an appearance in the Champions League final, Park was starting to attract the interest of the big clubs.
First on the list were Chelsea and Manchester United. Just like Guus Hiddink, Sir Alex Ferguson had a proclivity to players of Park’s mould. While Hiddink advised Park to move to Stamford Bridge, Park had already set his heart on the Theatre of Dreams. Perhaps, the greatest bargain of the past decade for Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson signed Park for a meager £4m. Park’s reputation, although not in the skies, was quite impressive considering he was in the best XI of the Champions League the previous season.
His arrival at Manchester United wasn’t marked by glitter. Manchester United’s stardom was mainly attributed to the presence of players like Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Sir Alex, who never regarded the media as a potential disturbance chose to play down the Park card and never anointed him as one of Manchester United’s most important players.
Yet, the nimble-footed South Korean decided to work his way to the top as he carried off his form from the previous season. In a career often plagued by injuries, Park was never able to excel throughout a season. While Park’s presence greatly boosted the depth of the squad, Manchester United’s sales in Asia exploded. Being the most popular sportsperson in South Korea, the fans thronged to collect memorabilia of their favourite countryman.
Although the move wasn’t done with that as a primary reason, that went on to become the stepping stone to spreading the popularity of Manchester United in the farther regions of Asia. The versatility of Park along with his neat passing skills ensured that Sir Alex never stuck him to a position and he was often fiddled around. While the subtle nuances of playing in Europe and Premier League came to the fore, Sir Alex always chose to go with Park.
Lighting up the Champions League
Park was the one player Sir Alex trusted, no matter what. When Manchester United went up against a strong team in Europe, Park would never be left out. He would be assigned the task of destroying the opposition’s midfield and. my word, he redefined that role. The poignant yet reverberating celebrations of the Champions League final rolled before his eyes as he sat back and watched his teammates devour the glory. Manchester United had defeated Chelsea 6-5 in penalties and Sir Alex Ferguson had lifted the Champions League trophy for the second time.
But, in the process, he had made a grand deception on Park. The man who made it happen. His semi-final performance against Barcelona was one to remember for the ages. Paul Scholes had scored the solitary goal over the two legs but Park Ji Sung had put in one of the most selfless performances ever witnessed. As the Catalonian Giants loaded their midfield with Iniesta and Xavi, Sir Alex had put his faith in Park. With two of world’s best midfielders against you, an ounce of fear is all it would take to destroy your self-confidence.
As Park held on to his game, Iniesta would go on to play victim to Park’s extraordinary performance and Barcelona would have their dreams shattered. As the ball moved from one player to another, Park would be on him in the blink of an eye and seemingly destroy the move. As the full time whistle touched upon the player’s ears, Park would exude a breath of relief for the first time. While United’s fans celebrated their win, Park would quietly disappear onto the tunnel after momentary praise from Sir Alex.
The onus of winning the Champions League was such that Sir Alex failed to keep in terms with Park’s role as he relegated to the fringes during the final. Not even making the bench, Sir Alex Ferguson had just deprived Park of one of the greatest moments of his career. Sir Alex later mentioned that leaving out Park was one of the toughest decisions he had to make. Yet, they were empty words. All with no thought on how much they had affected this man. When the club came calling, he left no stone unturned.
He had forever been indebted to the priceless cheers of Old Trafford and the moment had yet to suffice when he would leave. As the new season ensued, Park signed a new contract and sent a statement, “I have no reason to move. I play at the best club in the world”. The rumours of Ronaldo leaving had already taken to form as Park was given a higher role in the team while Ronaldo’s form deteriorated. As United went to the semi-finals of the Champions League once more, Park would seal the tie with what was his first ever Champions League goal for United.
Playing against Arsenal, Manchester United progressed to the final with a 4-1 win. Once excluded, Sir Alex wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. As Park started the match, the inhibitions regarding his inclusion were highly mistaken. Contrary to the belief that a previous denial had resulted in his inclusion, the mere fact was that he had wholly justified his inclusion with an excellent season, yet no one ever took time to look into that.