“He never stops running, ever – After a good night’s sleep dreaming about running, Park runs out of bed and runs around the kitchen making breakfast like Morecambe and Wise on crack. He then runs himself a bath, runs laps at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground, runs back home in the evening and then runs to the shop because he’s run out of milk.” (Source: Sport.co.uk)
What a candid and fitting description of possibly the most famous Asian footballer of all time!
The majority of us are convinced that Park Ji-Sung was purchased to sell shirts. Regardless of his stellar performances, the everyday skeptics would never recognise Park’s contribution to Man Utd’s tactical extension. While being with a successful team has enabled him to become the first Asian to ever feature and the only Korean to ever win the Champions League final (against Barcelona and Chelsea respectively), we should also remember that he’s the captain and highest scorer of an undefeated national team in the World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign and the only Asian team that has reached the World Cup semi-finals. Park is also the first Asian to ever captain Man Utd (even for just a few minutes) and to win the FIFA Club World Championship.
When I lived in Shanghai, I used to play football every Sunday morning with a team of Singaporeans and I squirmed when they called me Park; I don’t know if it was because of resemblance or because of my constant running (no, really), but I’d like to think it’s the latter because a few of them keep telling me to stop running!
I became a fan of Park Ji-Sung when I visited South Korea last July – it was there that I realised how massive Park was, and how, when I use his name (in vain), it gets me places. I thought, “Hmm, I should just introduce myself as Park since I’m already used to it”. And so I did. With all the broken Korean an-nyong-ha-se-yo that I could speak, I introduced myself as Park whenever I met a South Korean, be it the innkeeper or the owner of the amusement park. “My name, Park.” Without fail, they break out into a hearty chortle every single time.
It sets them at ease immediately and builds up a sense of familiarity between two strangers. With that audacity to shamelessly pretend to be the national hero, I received massive discounts, unexpected favours, patient answers to annoying tourist questions, and most precious of all, I experienced the South Korean hospitality and smile in the warmest way possible. And being shrewd, you can imagine how I continued with that introduction for the rest of the trip. I have so much to thank you for, Ji-Sung. And I didn’t even need to run!
The more I watch Park play, the more I enjoy his honest, hardworking and tenacious contribution to Man Utd. He has consistently proven his credentials and deserves all the accolades after scoring in big matches and against big teams like AC Milan, Arsenal and Liverpool. He willingly covers every blade of grass for his teammates and has rightfully earned the nickname, “Three-lung Park”. He’s not quite at legendary status, I think he has confirmed his status as a United great and will surely enjoy a “cult hero” treatment in the stands and in our living rooms for the rest of his career.
“I didn’t think that (Park was bought just to sell shirts)… …When I went to see him play in those Champions League semi-finals for PSV Eindhoven in 2005, I thought this is a player who understands football. He is intelligent and disciplined and he can play different positions.” – Sir Alex Ferguson
“When Ji first arrived in Manchester he never talked and people didn’t know much about him. But when we arrived in Seoul you can see he is the King of Korea! They shake, they cry, they scream when they see him. It’s amazing. He’s like the David Beckham of Korea. I’m very happy for him because he’s a really good friend and on the pitch he always gives 100 per cent for the team. That’s why people love him.” – Patrice Evra
“I know that some of the Korean players are doing very well in England… …And Park has started very well. I think he has made his name at Eindhoven first and in the Champions League has convinced. When you play against him, he’s a very hardworking player who sacrifices for the team but as well has good skill and scores important goals, unfortunately, against us. I’m convinced by his quality. He has a top level attitude.” – Arsene Wenger
“When we were scouting Park at PSV, I went to see him at the quarter-finals against Lyon. What we identified was a player with a great understanding of space. When his team had the ball, his movement was clever. We saw a player who could penetrate in the last third of the field and that is why we bought him. Since then he has developed his tactical and technical ability and he has become a very important player for us. He has had a fantastic career with us. When a local lad like Ji-Sung has left his country to play for Manchester United and excel at the highest level then it is obvious he will receive adulation at home. He has been the star of the national team for a while too. This is a football nation and when they see Park doing well and then when he comes back, the reaction is understandable.” – Sir Alex Ferguson
We used to dread Park’s inclusion on the team sheet but now we feel more confidence with him in the starting 11; he has indeed proven to worldwide audiences that hard work pays off after all. He is an inspiration for all Asians – if he could do it for Man Utd, surely one of the billion others could.
I’ve spent a fair amount of money on Man Utd and this was the first time I received financial dividends. If you ever happen to be in Suwon (Park’s hometown), look out for Park Ji-Sung Road – this unprecedented road-naming for a living person honours Park’s sizable contributions to South Korea through football. Remember also, to use the most powerful four-letter word – P-A-R-K.
Keep watching, keep believing and keep working hard. For one day, worldwide success (and local discounts for your fans) will surely knock on your door.
As most of you would know, this blog would naturally be about topics close to my heart. Amongst these things is football, of course.
This love affair started in 1994, when Man Utd whipped the living daylights out of Chelsea in an emphatic 4-0 victory at the FA Cup Final. It was the first time I watched football on TV, the first time I watched United, and the first time I saw in action L’Enfant Terrible, Le King, Eric Cantona. Proud as a peacock, he scored two penalties to secure the win and there was no denying an instant admiration for the puffed-up chest, erect collar, nose-in-sky arrogant swagger; he is the sole reason why I’m a Man Utd supporter, why I like #7 and why my preferred position has always been as a support striker.
Well, I was hoping to write this article at the back of an away United victory at the Allianz Arena, but alas, that utopia could not materialise. Instead, very ironically, Munich exacted its revenge on United in the same manner almost 11 years ago and scored the winner late in injury time. That moment in time, my friends, has to go down as one of the highlights of my life (although it had absolutely nothing to do with me).
There’s something special about football that allows guys to channel that barbaric, unbridled energy into something decibel-defying and of course in time to come, conversation-starting. It’s just like how Singaporean boys would congregate and chatter non-stop about their NS days even though majority of them slam it. Girls would probably never comprehend this love-hate sentiment boys have for NS; in the same way, most of them still do not understand offside, in spite of umpteen patient explanations. They just don’t get it, do they?
Back to football, it was on 26 May 1999 that my most distinct football memory was constructed. I watched it together with CC at his house and it looked like United was set to collect the runners-up medal. United conceded a goal in the 6th minute and Munich played a tremendous game to protect that precarious lead. In the 91st minute, Sheringham scored the equaliser from a Beckham corner. To put it very mildly, we went berserk – a barbaric celebration of screaming, shouting, hugging, hollering, decibel-defying madness. Just as we were about to settle down, Beckham stepped up again to take another corner in the 93rd minute and Solskjaer put the ball at the back of the Germans’ net from close-range to send 300 million fans into raptures. To put it very mildly again, we went ballistic – an even more barbaric celebration of screaming, shouting, hugging, hollering, decibel-deafening insanity. We weren’t the only ones replacing the rooster’s early morning crow – the whole neighbourhood was either with us, or woken up by us.
CC watched this morning’s loss with me at my place. We reminisced about the buzzing feeling that we had when we trotted off to school a couple of hours later. We were riding on the cloud nine of 1999. It was like we needed to tell everyone about the adrenaline-filled, lung-busting once-in-lifetime adventure we had just moments ago. Ask any twenty-something year old United fan about that night and I promise you an instant, enthusiastic conversation to follow. Observe the sparkle in his eye as he revives the memory that’s still fresh in his mind.
Now that’s the power of football – to create memories and conversations. Keep watching, keep screaming.
In football (or any sport), there is would be nothing more humbling and sobering than to have a 18-year-old take the place of a 28-year-old in the first 11. And it is because of this youth threat that teams like Manchester United, Barcelona and Arsenal would always be ahead of the pack in the longer run. Both teams do it differently – United and Barcelona are not afraid to blood their own youngsters by replacing senior players in the big games while Arsenal is simply a youth team with a couple of senior players.
That has to be the greatest vote of confidence that Sir Alex Ferguson, Josep Guardiola or Arsene Wenger could give to the younger ones. This “I believe in you” that the vastly experienced managers tell the vastly inexperienced kids give them the drive to succeed and the belief that they are actually good enough. This realisation probably sounds like this, “Wow, this world-class manager actually believes that I can go on and help team win. I cannot disappoint him!” And the introduction of youth forces the senior and more established players to sit up, roll up their socks, get their act together and start to pull their weight and measure their contribution to the team like multimillion-dollar paid players.
The introduction of youth brings a certain amount of vigour and reinvigoration to a team. I’m sure the older and slightly more jaded players get refreshed by the sheer enthusiasm and energy that these youths have for football. That is the reason why we enjoy watching the three teams that I’ve mentioned and we tend to switch off when we watch a team like Chelsea, which Sir Alex has famously said before, “A team over 30 doesn’t improve a lot”. AC Milan is the odd exception though, being a retiree’s home; while the departure of Kaka has made them a less attractive football spectacle, they still play some decent football; putting Ronaldinho, Beckham, Pato and Pirlo together still produces a fair amount of flair and good football.
When I examine Chelsea – a team with everyone on the wrong side of 30, I see a 32-year-old Frank Lampard backed up by a 34-year-old Michael Ballack and a 28-year-old Petr Cech backed up by a 35-year-old Henrique Hilario. They do not produce their own youngsters (buying doesn’t count!) and they currently do not have any outstanding youngsters that look like they could successfully replace someone in the first team. In short, I think that there is no future in the team. They are all hanging on to current and former glories and can only hope to sustain its success by preserving its existing team. If you want to determine the long term regenerative success of a club, you simply need to scrutinise the set-up of its youth academy. Just look at teams like Olympique Lyon and Ajax Amsterdam as good examples.
It’s commonly said that “Form is temporary and class is permanent”. May I add on my five cents worth and say that while that is true, it is the average age of the team that determines its long-term reality; if you have no youth, you have no future. Many times we hear the statement, “The youths are the leaders of tomorrow”. I think that that is euphemised rubbish from cowardly leaders who do not put their money where their mouth is – it’s like saying, “Yes, yes, you do have potential, but you don’t have ability yet, so I can’t give you the platform to perform“. I, on the other hand, believe that the youths are the leaders of today. It applies to football and it applies to any organisation. In the words of the legendary Sir Matt Busby, “If they are good enough, they are old enough”. I rest my case. May the youths of today pave the way for the youths of tomorrow.
But I digress. Now back to football, it’s three youthful and resounding cheers to the United, Barcelona and Arsenal philosophy of playing their football. Keep watching, keep believing in youths.