Cult Heroes: Ji-Sung Park

From being rejected by clubs in Seoul in his early days due to his lack of physical prowess, to becoming the most successful Asian footballer to ever play in Europe, Park Ji-Sung has had a remarkable career. We take a look at Manchester United’s cult hero, Park Ji-Sung, and the impact he has had at the Theatre of Dreams.

EARLY DAYS (1998-2000)

Park’s ambition of becoming a professional footballer emerged early. In 1998, he led his high school team to a victory in the Korean National Sports Festival. This success prompted him to apply for several professional clubs and universities. Due to his small physical stature, he was rejected several times before finally getting into Myonji University. However, in January 1999, his university team was given a chance to train with the South Korean Olympic team. His performance during these training sessions attracted the attention of the South Korean Olympic team and national team manager Huh Jung-moo. Thereafter, he became a formal member of the Olympic team. His continuingly impressive performances earned him a spot in the national team and he made his debut on 5th April 2000, in an AFC Asian Cup qualification game against Laos. In his early days, Park operated predominantly as an attacking midfielder but could also play on the left-hand side, as well as the right-hand side of midfield. He was known for his tenacity and tremendous work rate which eventually earned him the nickname ‘Three-lunged Park’.

Kyoto Purple Sanga and PSV Eindhoven (2000-2005)

The first professional club that Park signed for was the Kyoto-based J1 league side, Kyoto Purple Sanga. He joined the club in June 2000 and in his first season itself, Sanga was demoted to the J2 league. However, in 2001, Sanga won the J2 league and instantly earned back promotion. Park’s stellar performance in the 2002/03 season led Sanga to their first-ever Emperor’s Cup victory. He ended up scoring the equalizer in the final which they went on to win 2-1. This was Park’s last game for Sanga and he left the club as one of its greats.

After South Korea failed in the 2000 Olympics, Gus Hiddink was appointed as the manager by the Korean national team. During his time with the Korean national team, he made Park a more versatile player by playing him on the wings in a 4-4-2 formation, as well as often playing him as a wide forward in a 4-3-3 system. This led to an increase in Park’s goal tally for the national team and his performances against England and France leading up to the 2002 world cup grabbed international attention. After managing the national team for two years, Hiddink invited Park to play for him at PSV Eindhoven. In January 2003, Park joined PSV. However, the South Korean struggled during his initial days in the Netherlands due to injuries. He underwent an operation to remove his meniscus and this affected his first season at PSV. But the departure of Arjen Robben to Chelsea in 2004 led to increased opportunities at the club for the Korean. He instantly proved his worth to the team by producing stellar performances in a campaign that saw PSV reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. He was a pivotal part of that PSV midfield due to his tremendous burst of pace while breaking on the counter and his crisp and accurate passing. He was the top contributor of goals and assists for PSV that season and even scored against AC Milan in the Champions League semi-final. These world-class performances at the highest level are what grabbed the attention of Manchester United in 2005.
Manchester United (2005-2012)
Impressed by his performances at PSV, Sir Alex Ferguson signed Park in July 2005 for 4 million pounds. In a team full of superstars the Korean’s role was hardly ever well-defined. He was neither a prolific goal-scorer who started regularly nor a physically dominant midfielder. In his early days at United, many were skeptical about Ferguson’s decision; especially in an era when stats like distance covered, progressive carries, etc. weren’t a part of the ‘meta’. But over the years, Ferguson truly utilized Park’s full potential by playing him all across the midfield as well as a wide forward in a front three. While playing in the midfield, he was more of a box-to-box midfielder. Ferguson often turned to Park in big games because of the defensive solidity the Korean brought to the side. 
Park’s first goal for the Red Devils came against Birmingham City in a league cup game in which United won 3-1. In his first season at the club, Park was a regular fixture off the bench in both domestic as well as European competitions, but started sparingly. However, the trust Ferguson had in him was evident, as Park took the armband off Ryan Giggs in a Champions League home game against Lille on 18th October 2005. He thus became the first Asian to captain Manchester United. Park netted his first Premier League goal against Arsenal in a 2-0 home victory on 9th April 2006. This was the first of five goals he scored against Arsenal, making him an arch-nemesis for the gunners over the years.

However, the Korean’s progress was halted in his second season when he injured his ankle in a game against Tottenham Hotspur in September. He recovered from that ankle injury in three months, but was sent to America for surgery in April due to a recurring knee problem. This was a chronic knee problem that would eventually accelerate his retirement. Side-lined with injuries for most of the season, Park said that he wasn’t happy with the Premier League medal he won in 2006/07 and assured the fans that he had much more to offer in the years to come.
Walking the talk, Park ensured he was a pivotal member of the United squad from 2007 to 2011 as United went on to win three league titles and played three Champions League finals while winning one of them. Park was hailed for his performances in the big games, where he always delivered. Multiple goals against big clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and AC Milan during this time soon made him a favorite amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Ferguson mostly deployed him on the left side of the midfield three where his workman-like attitude and intense pressing gave the likes of Paul Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez the creative freedom which brought the best out of them. However when played in a front three as a wide forward Park came up with crucial goals and assists as he broke with immense pace on the counter. The goal and assist he got against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final or his goal in AC Milan’s 4-0 thumping at Old Trafford in 2010 are a few examples. When it came to dubious Champions League fixtures, Park was a go-to player for Ferguson. He was pivotal in both legs while defending a 1-0 lead against Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final. His relentless work rate, off-the-ball movement and a knack for intercepting Barcelona’s quick passing earned him tremendous plaudits in that game. Ferguson later admitted in an interview that leaving Park out of the 2008 Champions League final squad was one of the toughest managerial decisions he has ever had to make. 
Perhaps his best performance in a United shirt came against AC Milan on the 10th of March 2010 at Old Trafford. Ferguson had deployed him in a midfield three with a very specific role. He was assigned to man-mark the Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo to curb the creative flow of that flamboyant AC Milan team. Park executed this role so well in United’s 4-0 thumping of Milan that the Italian later wrote in his autobiography, “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.” Such praise from one of the best midfielders in the world just goes to show how pivotal Park was in that United team from 2007 to 2011.

Park made his 200th appearance for United on 5th February 2012 against Chelsea. During the 2011/12 season, Park had some memorable moments like scoring in the 8-2 victory against Arsenal, but his playing time had drastically reduced due to injuries and a dip in form. This led him to find a move away from Manchester to regain some game time.

Park ended up scoring 27 times for the Red Devils while making 205 appearances for the club. His relentless work ethic, energy and ability to adapt to several positions in a team filled with superstars is what made him special. In May 2020, Rooney said in an interview, “It’s crazy but if you mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo to a 12-year-old, they would immediately say, ‘Yeah, he was a brilliant player for Manchester United.’ But if you said ‘Ji-sung Park’ they may not know who he was. Yet all of us who played with Park know he was almost as important to our success”. This just goes to show how highly valued he was by his team-mates at United and continues to have great relationships with them.

QPR and the return to PSV (2012-14)

Due to the lack of regular playing time at United, Park moved to Queens Park Rangers on 9 July 2012. Park was made captain of the club, but due to his recurring knee problems combined with a lack of form, his time at QPR was quite unpleasant. The Hoops got relegated that season with Park only managing 20 league appearances and no goals.

With QPR playing in the second division of English football, Park returned to PSV during the 2013/14 season on loan. Perhaps the highlight of his return was when he captained PSV in a 4-0 win against Ajax while assisting twice and scoring once. In May 2014, Park announced his retirement due to the persistent knee problems he was facing. Reflecting on his career, he said, “I’m leaving with no regrets, I enjoyed playing football. I have achieved more than I 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.”

Legacy and post-retirement work

To this day Park continues to represent Manchester United as a global club ambassador for the club. Park is the founder of the charitable foundation, JS Foundation, set up in 2011, which develop and launch charity programs that will support football infrastructure and also the necessities of life. Park is remembered very fondly by the Old Trafford Faithful due to his contributions to a side that started from scratch and ended up winning everything. The Korean played a pivotal role in the rebuild that was brought about by Ferguson from 2005 to 2010. He was a perfect fit in a squad full of superstars who were raring to reach their prime and galvanized the squad by his hardworking and selfless attitude.

If we were to draw a parallel between Ji-Sung Park and a current member of the squad, the person whose name is most likely to come up in that particular conversation is Daniel James. A reliable, selfless player who would run his heart out for the team and can be used as a great tactical pawn to disrupt opposition, especially in the bigger games as mentioned previously. While James may still not be the final product, he has proven to be very useful in disrupting the opposition play with the help of his intelligent pressing and running. James, currently, may not be as good a player as Park was but their roles in the squad seem to be pretty similar.

Players like Ji-Sung Park don’t come around very often, but when they do, they leave a long lasting legacy behind them. 

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