The AFC Asian Cup has long offered youngsters a platform on which to measure themselves against the best talent on the continent, with several former stars of the competition going on to achieve global recognition. Just over a decade ago, Korea Republic’s Park Ji-Sung was a little-known 19-year-old when he made his tournament debut at Lebanon 2000. Today he wears the colours of Manchester United and is one of the most famous Asian footballers on the planet.
As fate would have it, this year's edition has heralded the arrival of another South Korean of immense potential in Ji Dong-Won, who took time out from a busy schedule to chat to FIFA.com. Hopeful that the tournament will stand him in good stead for the future, the Chunnam Dragons forward is nonetheless savouring every minute in Qatar. “I feel very lucky to be playing in the biggest football competition in Asia," he said. "I’ve had a great time so far and am really enjoying the tournament."
Ji has played a major role in helping the Taegeuk Warriors reach the semi-finals, having started every game so far and scored twice in the first-phase match against India. Despite his contribution, the 19-year-old was a model of humility when it came to evaluating his performances at the event.
“Personally, I believe I need to play better," he said. "I’ve squandered a number of chances, which, as an out-and-out striker, I should have scored. Still, I‘m learning a lot from the others, especially the highly experienced Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo. I’ve started all the matches so far but the most memorable for me was being picked for the quarter-final against Iran, as I got to help my team-mates reach the semis."
The Korean people are pinning all their hopes on us. This is a game between the two best sides in Asia and we’ll be doing our very best to win.
Ji also believes his brace against India has given him a timely boost in confidence. “Scoring was the most amazing sensation, and I now feel I can play better in the coming matches," he explained.
“The match against Iran was our hardest in the competition so far. The Iranian players are physically very strong and excellent in the air, which meant I had to cover a lot more ground in order to create chances. But the whole team put in a great shift and I think that’s the reason we won the game and reached the semi-finals: we ran more than they did.”
Ji then turned his attention to his side's upcoming semi-final. “I didn’t get the chance to see our game against Japan four years ago, but the Korean people are pinning all their hopes on us,” said the No10 on the match for the third place at the Asian Cup 2007, which the Taeguk Warriors won 6-5 on penalties. “This is a game between the two best sides in Asia and we’ll be doing our very best to win.”
Captain of the Korea Republic team that qualified for this summer’s FIFA U-20 World Cup via the AFC Asian U-19 Championship, Ji is expected to take part in the showpiece on Colombian soil, which will begin on 29 July. For all that, the teenager is not getting ahead of himself.
“All I’m aiming for now is winning the Asian Cup to take it back to Korea, while I also hope I’m able to play better in my next two games than I’ve done so far," he said. “Only once this tournament is over will I start to focus on the U-20 World Cup. Last time out Korea Republic reached the quarter-finals (where they lost 3-2 to eventual winners Ghana), and this year I want us to do even better.”
Ji concluded our interview by paying tribute his idol Park Chu-Young: “He’s my role model in Korean football, and he typifies the sort of player I want to become. Whenever I play with him he always surprises me with his skill, ability and footballing brain.”