Park seizes his final chance after rocky ride
Korean was devastated at being left out in Moscow but will have part to play in Rome
Friday 22 May 2009
Park Ji-Sung ambles through Manchester United's training complex with an insouciance that suggests he does not suspect anyone will stop him and actually ask to talk. His great friend Carlos Tevez, in garish white puffer jacket, is up ahead holding court but the South Korean keeps his head down. He did the same in his only appearance at a Champions League press conference of the past two seasons, last April, when he was asked a solitary question – the last one, and an afterthought – to which he quietly responded, with the season's finish fully six weeks off, that United would win the double.
When this conversation does begin unravelling, Park, articulating his thoughts on Wednesday's Champions League final in clear English, makes it clear that the low profile is just fine. In his native Seoul fans have been known to chase him down the streets amid the kind of acclaim that makes David Beckham look like a C-lister. "The culture there is different," the 28-year-old says. "Asian fans shout at me and chase me and when I go back to Korea maybe I can't walk down the streets. It is sure different to the English culture. But I don't want to be a famous or popular guy. I want to be a good player, but not a popular guy off the pitch. I like it to be calm off the pitch."
Manchester is beginning to awake to him, too. The midfielder was devastated to be omitted from Sir Alex Ferguson's Champions League final squad last season – "it was heartbreaking," he reflects, "the biggest disappointment in my career so far" – but he has responded in a way which reflects his football: steadfastly and unsensationally picking himself up and completing his most convincing season yet at Old Trafford. "I used [Moscow] as motivation," he says. "I believed United could get to the final again and I wanted to be there this time. I kept working hard and finally I have one more chance. Hopefully this time it is different to last season."
It surely will be. Ferguson has effectively guaranteed Park a place in the squad for Rome – reward, it would seem for the kind of forbearance that Tevez cannot find. The two of them and Patrice Evra make up one of the most improbable social groups at United, involved in the kind of high jinks which are revealed in the memorable Park birthday episode, viewable through YouTube, in which Park is blasted in the face by a confetti popper brought by Tevez.
Understandably, Park staunchly defends Tevez's recent protests and argues a strong case for him staying. "He is the best player so we need him," Park says. "We know that. This season when he's come on the pitch he has scored a lot of goals, helped the team and saved the team. But it is only Carlos who can do that, compared to other players." Park has shown the greater fortitude in the face of far more affliction of his own in his European career. Signed for PSV Eindhoven after Guus Hiddink moved there from the South Korean side he took to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals, Park struggled with form and injury and was booed by his own fans.
"I always thought I'd stay in Europe," he reflects. "When I had a hard time [in the Netherlands] I thought I could show that I am an honest person and if they still boo me then my quality is not enough to play in Europe." Eventually he became integral to PSV's midfield, scoring the first goal in the 2004/5 Champions League semi-final against Milan which the Dutch narrowly lost, and was such a cult hero that "Song for Park", the terrace anthem adopted for him, was included in an official PSV anthem. The lyrics do not appear to gravitate much beyond the refrain "Ji-Sung Park" but the thought was there.
Park feels he has something to prove, as he seeks to become the first Asian to win a Champions League medal. "I believe I have not shown everything," he says. "If I can show everything I will be happy, but at the moment I do not want to go back to Korea."
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