Park: The gap is closing
© AFP

On the eve of his appearance at the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup Japan, Manchester United star Park Ji-Sung has warned his team-mates that they should not expect an easy ride in their opening match against Gamba Osaka at Yokohama's International Stadium on Thursday.

The Red Devils arrived in the Far East on Monday; just hours after the Japanese side had booked their place in the semi-finals of the competition with a 1-0 victory over Adelaide United in Toyota. Park is looking forward to coming up against Asian opposition, particularly a J.League side, as it brings back pleasant memories of his own time in the country.

While playing for Myongji University in his native Korea Republic in 2000, he was offered a contract with Kyoto Purple Sanga and stayed there for three years, playing under German coach Gert Engels. However, in early 2003, a move to PSV Eindhoven for a reunion with former Taeguk Warriors coach Guus Hiddink materialised, and Park left Asia for Europe, where he has since remained.

However, the 27-year-old still speaks fluent Japanese and keeps a close eye on what is going on in the J.League.

I'm looking forward to showing the people there that I've grown up and that I'm a much better player than when I left.
Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung is looking forward to showcasing his skills in Japan.

"I really enjoyed it and I had a great time in Japan," he told FIFA.com. "The culture is quite similar to Korea. It was much easier for me to adjust to life there than it was when I came over to Europe.

"I've got some very happy memories of playing for Kyoto - and of Japan in general. While I was there we got promoted to the J.League and we also won the Emperor's Cup, so it will be really good to go back there. I'm looking forward to showing the people there that I've grown up and that I'm a much better player than when I left.

"I have to say that I have very special memories of our promotion. Playing in the top division for any team is very important, and although winning the cup was great, we had such a good, well-managed team at the time that it was important to make the step up. I was sorry to see them relegated in the year I left, but I'm happy to see them back in the J.League now."

There's still a big difference between European and Asian football, but the gap is getting smaller all of the time.
Park believes that Asian football is advancing at a rapid rate.

Park's former club were defeated both home and away in the J.League by Gamba Osaka in 2008, and with Akira Nishino's side also picking up the AFC Champions League title in the process, the Red Devils will have to be on their guard against an upset. And with the gap between European and Asian standards closing all the time, the South Korean is anticipating a tough match, but he is hopeful of progressing to Sunday's final.

"It's amazing to think how much Asian football has developed over the past ten years," continued Park. "There's still a big difference between European and Asian football, but the gap is getting smaller all of the time. I think a big part of that is because that there are a lot of Asian players in Europe nowadays. They're learning new skills and getting better experience - and I'd fully recommend Asian players to make the move. It's going to make them, as individuals, and Asian football better.

"It's going to be a difficult match for us. We've played a lot of games in December and we've had to make a long journey to Japan. There's also the nine hour time difference to contend with. However, we've experienced that before as we've played in Asia on a few occasions and the weather is similar to England, so we don't have to get used to that, unlike some of the other teams. Hopefully, we're going to be able to show the world why we're the English and European champions."