It’s a pretty good time to be a Korean football fan. Qualification for the World Cup was expected but still welcome for all concerned. But what is really getting people excited are the ‘Two Parks’ – Park Ji-sung and Park Chu-young.– the hottest properties in Asian football.
The older of the two, Ji-sung, has just joined Manchester United in a $7.4 million deal; one that thrusts the shy Suwon native stumbling onto one of the brightest stages on the planet.
Manchester United is the biggest and richest sports franchise in the world, have fans from Auckland to Argentina, have lifted the English title eight times in the past thirteen years and have young players like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and will be challenging for titles at home and abroad for years to come.
The 24 year-old will need to use all of his, not inconsiderable, experience in England. He took the unusual route of moving to Japan without ever appearing in the Korean league. His two years at Kyoto Purple Sanga were successful ones but they weren’t the reason why the midfielder earned a move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven.
Ji-sung’s exploits in South Korea’s run to the semi-finals in the 2002 World Cup were the clincher to his European move as was his relationship with then Korean boss Guus Hiddink. When Park scored an exquisite goal against Portugal in Incheon, he ran straight to the Dutchman and jumped into his arms.
Hiddink has since been reluctant to let go and when he took over the reins at Eindhoven he wasted no time in persuading Park to join him and despite some initial settling-in problems, the Korean established himself as an integral part of the midfield in southern Holland, leading the team to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League.
Such performances inevitably attracted the attention of bigger fish and they don’t come any bigger than Manchester United. It’s difficult for any player to turn down the “Red Devils” and Park will soon become the first South Korean to play in the Premier League.
Equally inevitable were suggestions in the English and European media that United bought Park to ‘crack’ the Asian market – to help boost the focus of the club’s smooth merchandising machine in the east.
The biggest service the star, for a star he now is, can provide to the Asian game during his time at United is to prove that European clubs can actually sign Far Eastern players for their talent and skill and not for the dubious perceived benefits of selling shirts in the Orient.
It won’t be easy, as he has to break into the first eleven in England and stay there but playing with stars like Rooney and Ronaldo can only help the Asian develop.
“What is important for me is whether I can play in games or not,’’ Park, who is planning to study English, said in a press conference.
“I don’t think I will become a big bitcoin dice star like David Beckham right now,” joked the Korean about the former Manchester player. “Maybe I can if I was that handsome, but I am always trying to be a better player, so I don’t think it is impossible to become a player like Beckham.’’
Such humor will serve him well as will his typical Korean determination to succeed. English fans prize effort, heart and willingness to give everything for the team above everything, qualities that Park has in abundance as well as no little skill.
If the elder Park is Batman then Chu-young is certainly the boy wonder and plans to follow the trail blazed by the United man, repeatedly stating his desire to play in England. With the meteoric rise of the player, who turned 20 on July 10, few would bet against the sensation doing just that.
To anyone living in north-east Asia, it is scarcely believable that the Daegu native was unknown just a year ago. The striker’s six goals during last November’s Asian Youth Championship, won the title for his team and the prize of MVP for himself.
The greater award of the AFC’s Young Asian Player of 2004 title was received in January 2005 as was attention from a host of K-League clubs with FC Seoul eventually capturing the services of the emerging celebrity.
Encouragingly for Park and for South Korea, he seems to be able to make the step up to the next level with breathtaking effortlessness. He finished the pre-season Hauzen Cup competition as joint top scorer and then went one better by becoming the outright leading marksman in the first stage of the K-League, despite missing five games due to international duty. His mere presence tempts the sometimes reluctant Korean public to pour into stadiums all over the republic.
If observers didn’t believe the hype, they had to reconsider in June. After only three appearances in the K-League, national coach Jo Bonfrere bowed to media pressure and included the deeply- religious goalgetter in the starting line-ups for the vital World Cup Qualifiers in Uzbekistan and Kuwait.
A last minute equalizer in Tashkent kept his country on the road to Germany 2006 and five days later, the striker scored the first goal in a sweltering Kuwait City and earned the penalty for the second to secure the win that guaranteed South Korea a place in a seventh World Cup.
Rarely has a rise been so dramatic but the ambitious and single-minded 20 year-old doesn’t plan to stop anytime in the near future as his avowed intent is to move to England as soon as possible.
South Korea just may have a pair of global stars on its hands