Park Ji-Sung will add another milestone to his list of career achievements when he wins his 100th cap for South Korea in the Asian Cup semi-finals against Japan tonight.
The Manchester United midfielder could be winding down his international career after three World Cup campaigns and three Asian Cup tournaments, although he has remained evasive about his future. "I won't put too much meaning to the fact that it'll be my 100th match," said Park, who made his international debut in 2000. "It's the semi-final and against Japan, and that will make the match very interesting."
Park has become one of Asia's biggest stars and he would reach his pinnacle if South Korea finally won their third Asian Cup title after waiting since 1960.
South Korea coach Cho Kwang-rae said Park has done an "excellent job" for his country so far at the tournament. "I'd like to congratulate him and as a gift I'd like to give him victory tomorrow," Cho said. "He has shown outstanding leadership on and off the field and I want him to continue his excellent contribution to the end of the Asian Cup."
Midfielder Koo Ja-cheol, one of South Korea's crop of younger players, said Park, the captain, had been an inspiration to the entire team. "To be with a player who is one of the best is the world is important. He is giving us a lot of advice both on and off the pitch to make young players like me comfortable," the 21-year-old Koo said. "He has excellent leadership of the team and is the perfect example of someone who sacrifices himself for the team very much."
The 29-year-old Park made his World Cup debut in 2002, when he was picked by then-coach Guus Hiddink for the tournament that South Korea co-hosted with Japan, a tournament in which they reached the semi-finals. Park played in 2006 and 2010 as well and scored at all three tournaments.
Park has distinguished himself with exemplary commitment and fitness at both club and country level.
After moving to Manchester United in 2005, Park helped the club win three consecutive Premier League titles and was the first Asian to play in a Champions League final, when United lost to Barcelona in 2009. The season before that, Park had helped United reach the final but was excluded from the squad against Chelsea by manager Alex Ferguson. United won on penalties.
The Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni is trying to keep the expectation in his squad under control as they prepare to face their long-term rivals. The experienced Italian coach believes too much intensity might increase tension among Japan players, who are seeking to win a record fourth Asian Cup title.
Zaccheroni expects a tight match between very similar teams, and thinks it will be decided by small details.
The two countries are historical rivals, mainly due to Tokyo's brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula in the early part of the last century. Major international football and baseball matches between them have drawn huge attention in both countries. In recent years, however, a sports rivalry has emerged as the two countries have grown closer, especially in the cultural sphere.
"I don't want to focus too much on the background between Japan and South Korea," South Korea midfielder Koo said yesterday.
"It's always something special, but it's just a game before the final and it won't make a big difference to us," said Koo, who leads the tournament's scoring table with four goals.
Japan midfielder Makoto Hasebe also didn't want to dwell on the past. "I don't need to speak about it a lot, you know the history and the relationship of the two teams. We'll play with pride in tomorrow's match," Hasebe said. "I want to be the champion here and that's more important than beating South Korea."
For Zaccheroni, Japan versus South Korea is the Asian version of Brazil v Argentina or Italy v Germany, the classic South American and European showdowns. "I don't know about South Korea, but for me yes, it's like those rivalries," the former Juventus, Milan and Internazionale coach said.
Zaccheroni said his players were "mentally exhausted" after they battled from behind with 10 men to defeat hosts Qatar in the quarter-finals and gave them a day off to rest on Sunday.
"The physical side is important but the mental aspect is especially important when you've had a tight match so I needed to give them a day off," Zaccheroni said. "I don't need to motivate my players, they know how important tomorrow's match is. I have to find the right balance between focus and tension, too much tension is not good.
"I have to adjust and control the right level of tension. Too much motivation leads to too much tension."
Japan defender Maya Yoshida will be out after picking up a red card against Qatar but Zaccheroni said he was not worried about his young defence, which has conceded four goals in four games.
"We lead the tournament with 11 goals scored," the coach said of Japan's high-powered attack.
Zaccheroni's team will rely on the scoring abilities of striker Shinji Okazaki, who has three goals so far, midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who scored twice against Qatar, and the midfield inspiration of Keisuke Honda.
Japan have won three of the past five Asian titles but havwe a losing record overall (34-10) against South Korea. At the Asian Cup, though, the teams have won a game each, with South Korea winning on penalties in the third-place play-off four years ago.
South Korea, who progressed with a 1-0 extra-time win over Iran, will be eager to make up for a consistent record of failure in the knockout stages. Despite only once failing to make the quarter-finals in 12 appearances, they have not won the tournament in over 50 years.