Park poised for 100th cap
One of Asia's greatest players will add another accolade to his already impressive CV tomorrow when he wins his 100th cap for Korea Republic in their AFC Asian Cup semi-final against arch-rivals Japan.
Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung, who rose to prominence under Dutch coach Guus Hiddink at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™, said it meant all the more to achieve the feat at a top international event. "Obviously it will be a great honour to play my 100th game for the national team in a major tournament like the Asian Cup," said the 29-year-old.
Park, his country's most iconic sportsman, joins seven other South Koreans to have reached the landmark, but still has some way to go to better all-time leader Hong Myung-Bo, who played 136 times before retiring in 2002. Should he continue playing, his next target will be Hwang Sun-Hong, who won 103 caps.
However, Park's international future is unclear. Before the Asian Cup, he strongly hinted that he would retire at the end of the tournament to focus on prolonging his United career.
His father told Korean media it would be his last major event, and on his arrival in Doha, Park told reporters: "It will be a very special Asian Cup for me. I do not have much time left in the international game. This makes me want to win the Asian Cup more than ever before."
However, Park is so influential that Korea Republic coach Cho Kwang-Rae has been desperately trying to convince his captain to stay and help him build his current young, and very impressive, team into world beaters. Cho wants the hard-working Park to continue until the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. When quizzed by media last week, all Park had to say was: "At the moment I can't say anything. I will talk after the Asian Cup."
If he decides to quit, it will be be a huge loss not just for Korea Republic, but football on the continent in general. Park has been the most recognisable face of Asian soccer for years, ever since bursting onto the scene at the 2002 FIFA World Cup on home soil when South Korea upset the odds to make the semi-finals.
Born in Seoul, he began his career playing for Myongji University before moving to Japan with Kyoto Purple Sanga, helping them win the Emperor's Cup. He made his international debut in 2000 and when Hiddink moved back to the Netherlands after the 2002 FIFA World Cup success, Park followed him a year later.
He made 63 appearances for PSV, scoring 13 goals, and when they reached the semi-finals of the 2004/05 UEFA Champions League his talents were recognised by astute Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who signed him in July 2005. Noted for his exceptional fitness levels, discipline, and work ethic, Park quickly established himself in the team, becoming firm friends with Carlos Tevez and Patrice Evra.
Since then he has helped United win three consecutive Premier League titles and became the first Asian to play in a Champions League final, only to see his side lose to Barcelona in 2009. It followed his crushing disappointment the year before when Ferguson omitted him from the side that faced Chelsea in their Champions League decider despite having played every minute of the quarter and semi-finals.
He failed to even make the bench, but dealt with the setback well. Ferguson later said the decision to leave him out was one of the hardest of his long managerial career. Park has played at three FIFA World Cups, scoring in each tournament, with his 100th cap on Tuesday cementing his reputation of one of the greatest Asian players of all time.