During his illustrious 26 year reign at Manchester United, it seemed Sir Alex Ferguson had a never ending supply of dedicated professionals. Players that would sacrifice all hopes of admiration and glory, in a bid to enhance his side’s chances of success. Though few escaped the shackles of their ‘water carrier’ status, there was one who did – Ferguson’s South Korean clutch competitor.
As defending champions France kicked off the 2002 FIFA World Cup, South Korea became the first Asian country to host the world’s most prestigious football tournament. With expectations tapered, the co-hosts kicked off their campaign in Busan against Poland. Despite being represented in the previous 4 competitions, the Korean Republic were yet to win a game on the world stage. Little did they know, their record was about to change dramatically.
After brushing aside Jerzy Engel’s Poland and gaining a respectable 1-1 draw with the U.S.A, Guus Hiddink’s side faced original favourites for the group Portugal, to see who would advance to the round of 16. Red cards to Joao Pinto and Beto saw Luis Figo’s Portugal down to 9 men, and left the Korean’s waiting in baited breath to see if their plucky underdogs could make history. When the ball was whipped across the Portuguese box with 20 minutes to go, Park Ji-Sung announced himself to world football. Two deft touches were followed by a lashed left footed volley that scurried through the legs of Vitor Baia. The second that ball crossed the goal line, Park was no longer just a footballer, he was a national hero.
Park’s impressive displays drove the Koreans all the way to the Semi Final, claiming the scalps of 3rd and 6th seeds Italy and Spain in the process. Despite narrowly missing out on third place, Hiddink was granted honorary citizenship before leaving his post as national team manager. Hiddink returned to Holland to take over at dutch side PSV Eindhoven, before convincing South Korea’s gallant protagonist to join him.
Due to injuries and the difference in culture, Park Ji-Sung’s transition to European football was anything but plain sailing. According to Park’s father, his son felt like he was gaining a poor reputation in the Eredivisie, and was left wondering if he’d made the correct decision in leaving. As is his character, the South Korean continued to believe in the principles which had gotten him this far, eventually becoming a mainstay in a strong PSV side.
In the 2004/05 season, Park’s impressive form in front of goal had elevated his side to the Semi Finals of the Champions League, were they would come up against a club what would eventually become synonymous with Park’s European adventures – AC Milan. Park’s early goal during the first leg wasn’t enough however, as the dutch side exited due to the away goals rule.
Despite failing to reach the final, Park was nominated for the 2005 UEFA Best Forward award, along with players such as Andriy Shevchenko, Adriano, Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho. To be considered for an award with this pantheon of greats, highlighted how well thought of he was becoming, not just in Holland but in Europe.
As the season came to a close, rumours of potential bids from English giants Chelsea and Manchester United began to fill the back pages. It is said that when Park was offered the choice between the two clubs, there was only ever one winner. As Park proudly held his Manchester United shirt aloft, his father explained that his desire to learn, regardless of his position in the team, was the driving force behind Park’s decision.
Three months prior to the arrival of Park Ji-Sung, the long-awaited Glazer family takeover of Manchester United Football Club was finalised. The American banker’s chequered past in previous sporting ventures sparked fears as to their intentions in amalgamating the club’s shares. Park’s arrival was labelled a publicity stunt, a purchase to reignite the apparent loss of power across East Asia in the post-Beckham era. Unfair though it was, this is how Park Ji-Sung’s life at Manchester United began – with conjectural mockery. However in 2008, the headlines surrounding United’s eventual cult hero capsized. Unfounded ramblings of economic exploitation were overturned by captions of ambivalence and amazement.
In the 2011/12 season, Park Ji-Sung won 87% of his tackles in the Premier League.
47 tackles attempted
41 tackles won
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) February 23, 2018
21st May 2008, Manchester United took on Premier League rivals Chelsea in the first ever all English Champions League Final. After playing every minute in the quarter-final/semi-final stages (vs. Roma and Barcelona), Park was axed from the squad. Ferguson stated that this was one of the hardest and most regrettable decision’s he has ever made. In the space of three seasons, the tireless midfielder had completely altered his media perception. The man from Seoul was now not only an asset to his manager, but a player that the viewing public expected to see on the team sheet.
After United’s triumph, and what was labelled a ‘Moscow nightmare’ for Park, few expected his career to progress – at least not with Manchester United. However in true underdog fashion, Park would go onto to make 122 more appearances for the Red Devils, including another big game moment.
16th February 2010, Manchester United traveled to Italy to face 7 time winners AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League. After a game in which saw a Ronaldinho masterclass, David Beckham on the opposing side and a number of nervy moments from United’s back four, Fergie’s side took a 3-2 lead back to Old Trafford. After the game, BBC reporter Phil McNulty suggested that “Ferguson’s pleasure will be tempered by the defensive flaws and carelessness in possession”. How would the Scotsman react to the threats of the Italian giants?
“He was truly fantastic, and particularly in big games. I loved playing him in the big games. His record against Arsenal, for instance, was fantastic.
The Milan games over there and at Old Trafford, when I asked Park to play directly against Pirlo, are memorable. He never gave Pirlo a kick and he kept running off him which was brilliant too.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson (2012)
Three weeks later Manchester United hosted the return leg, with a place in the quarter finals at stake. Alterations in personnel in the form of Gary Neville and Nemanja Vidic bolstered United’s defence, but how would this side counter-act the brilliance of the Pirlo/Ronaldinho partnership? Enter Ferguson’s ‘guard dog’.
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After employing a similar (but less effective) role at the San Siro, Park Ji-Sung was tasked with shadowing the ice-cold quarterback, Andrea Pirlo. On a night where Manchester United emerged 4-0 winners, the praise and admiration laid at the feet of the South Korean. It was as if Park was playing the game two passes ahead, an almost telepathic connection between himself and the thoughts of his opponent. Like a white blood cell engulfing an invading bacteria, Pirlo was allowed nothing. The unrelenting presence of United’s midfield phagocyte surrounded him, sending the nonchalant playmaker home harbouring nothing but resentment.
In his recent book ‘I think therefore I play’, the World Cup winner explained how it felt to be singled out by Sir Alex Ferguson:
“Even Sir Alex Ferguson, the purple-nosed manager who turned Manchester United into a fearsome battleship, couldn’t resist the temptation. He’s a man without blemish, but he ruined that purity just for a moment when it came to me. A fleeting shabbiness came over the legend that night.”
The player the Italian National Team nicknamed l’architetto (‘The Architect’), went onto describe what it felt like to be on the other side of Park’s man-marking assignment:
“He rushed about at the speed of an electron. He’d fling himself at me, his hands all over my back, trying to intimidate me. He’d look at the ball and not know what it was for. They’d programmed him to stop me. His devotion to the task was almost touching. Even though he was a famous player, he consented to being used as a guard dog.”
Paul Scholes once said “I’m told Pirlo never forgot being marked by Park”, it seems the devotion of valuable book space will do little to quell that myth. As we know, Pirlo isn’t one for complementing opposing players, but these paragraphs of indignant frustration may just be the next best thing.
He could run all day. I used to think of him as the manager’s loyal soldier. Sir Alex would give him precise instructions and he would follow them to the letter. I’m told Pirlo never forgot being marked by Park.
– Paul Scholes (2015)
Park’s career was encapsulated in his performance that night. After being crowned champions in 2008 and reaching the final the following year, Manchester United were at the pinnacle of the European elite. To beat United was an accolade, with each passing fixture the stakes grew and big games became a normality. But as Ferguson always said, there was no one better for the big occasion than Park Ji-Sung.
The proverb ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ never seemed more apt. During his 7 year stint in Manchester, the midfielder accumulated 13 trophies as well as developing into one of the most iconic tactical weapons of the Premier League era. Around the time of his arrival, Park explained that his decision to join Manchester United rested on his desire to learn. Despite presumptuous characterisations, injury set backs and surprising omissions, Park Ji-Sung’s effect on the latter stages of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure elevated himself from victimised pupil to refuting educator.