As his nickname ‘double-hearted oxygen tank’ indicates, Park Ji-Sung is a workhorse who never stops running down the flanks or in the middle of the park. The 29-year-old has become an icon of Korean football since his meteoric emergence from virtual obscurity.
In a friendly with the national team in January 1999, Myungji University freshman Park caught the eyes of Huh Jung-Moo who was then interim coach of Korea Republic. Although Huh’s decision to take him to the following year’s Olympic Football Tournament raised a few eyebrows, Park went on to feature in all three games at Sydney 2000.
By that time, Park had established himself at Kyoto Purple Sanga where he would stay for three seasons before moving to PSV Eindhoven in 2003. This move, however, would not have been made possible if Park had not played a key role in Korea Republic’s groundbreaking success under the guidance of Guus Hiddink at the FIFA World CupÔ in the previous year.
The tireless midfielder played in Korea Republic’s seven matches on home soil as the Taeguk Warriors stormed into the last four at Korea/Japan 2002, scoring the winner in a 1-0 win over Portugal in their final group game. Park was an overnight sensation during that summer, and Hiddink wasted no time in bringing the talented winger to the Netherlands along with left-back Lee Young-Pyo in the middle of the 2002/03 season.
Despite his slow start in his debut season in the Eredivisie, Park became afan’s favourite at the Philips Stadium where he scored the opening goal against AC Milan in the semi-final second leg of the 2004/05 UEFA Champions League. His impressive performance at the European club championship earned him a high-profile move to Manchester United the following summer.
However, his second trip to world football’s showpiece event proved to be less successful than the first, as Korea Republic made a group stage exit from Germany 2006. Park was nevertheless an integral part of the Taeguk Warriors squad, scoring the equaliser in a hard-fought 1-1 draw with eventual finalists France.
His goalscoring prowess was also an important part of the qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010 under coach Huh Jung-Moo, who appointed him captain ahead of the match against the United Arab Emirates in October 2008. Park scored his third goal of the preliminary competition in the match in Seoul, before netting the crucial equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Iran four months later. He finished as the Korea Republic’s top scorer with his fifth goal, in another 1-1 draw against the Iranians that denied Team Melli a place in the continental play-off.
Park is relishing his chance to shine again in what would be his third and probably last FIFA World Cup, as he mentioned recently. But the followers of the inspirational midfielder would love to see him play for his country in the years to come, and become a true legend of Korean football by leading the Taeguk Warriors to even more success and glory.