Park life: brightest star from the East

Manchester United's South Korean recruit admits to culture shock over the European game as he gives first major interview to a British newspaper
Click to follow
The Independent Football

East is East and West is West, and the twain do meet after all; Kipling was not to know that replica shirts would sell equally fast at all points of the compass. Browning proved to be more prescient a few years earlier: "Look East, where whole new thousands are!"

New millions of football fans, in fact, hugely proud of fellow countrymen who up sticks for European football, and ready to buy the shirt and subscribe to the satellite channel. It may have been an expensive pastime obtaining shirts from all of Junichi Inamoto's clubs, but as players from Japan, China and South Korea have landed in England, so the sale of Premiership television rights overseas has soared from £178 million for the previous three-year contract to £320m for the current one.

At one stage, when Japan's Inamoto and China's Sun Jihai returned home after only one season with Arsenal and Crystal Palace respectively, it had seemed that the process might stall altogether. But both eventually came back, to be followed by various compatriots, and last summer an important new milestone was reached with the arrival of the Koreans Park Ji-Sung at Manchester United and Lee Young-Pyo at Tottenham.

Given the failure of Inamoto to break through at Arsenal, United's recruitment of Park has had the highest profile of all the transfers from Asia, and become one of the most successful. An appearance in the unfamiliar surroundings of Burton Albion's Pirelli Stadium for this afternoon's classic FA Cup tie will be his 28th of the season, every one of them shown live on Korean television. Tending to alternate with Cristiano Ronaldo, he has confirmed a reputation built with his national team and then PSV Eindhoven as a lively, resourceful wide-midfield player not afraid of hard work.

Park, whose name translates rather appropriately as "Wise Star", arrived with the immeasurable benefit of having sampled European club football for the best part of three seasons. Yet, in his first major newspaper interview in this country, he admits that the culture shock of western football takes much getting used to for any Asian player. Having only slowly adjusted to life in Holland, he found England and the Premier-ship another huge step, and took a while to demonstrate his quality.

Although capable of passing Harry Redknapp's foreigners' test by understanding what a British manager is saying (even, at Old Trafford, in a Clydeside accent), he prefers to answer questions via an interpreter, doing so with the politeness and good humour of his race. Why, to start with, did he begin his professional career six years ago in Japan and not, say, Suwon, where a road is now named after him? "There was a K-League in Korea but in those days I was always dreaming of playing abroad, especially in Europe. I wanted to experience playing in another country, and in Japan it was easier to adjust than in Europe."

So he signed his own Kyoto agreement with the Purple Sanga club. Established early on in the South Korean Olympic team, he had 30 full caps to his name - scoring the equaliser in a 1-1 draw against England - by the time the World Cup came round, and with it that extraordinary outpouring of enthusiasm that accompanied Guus Hiddink's team all the way to a semi-final against Germany. Park's goal beat Portugal to achieve the major target of a place in the knockout stage, whereupon the Koreans eliminated Italy, then Spain in a penalty shoot-out before a 1-0 defeat by the Germans. "I didn't expect that we would do so well. I was really nervous taking a penalty against Spain. Then against Germany, I think all our players were tired, because we had played so much."

European coaches, impressed by the dynamism of Korea's game, swooped. Hiddink, of course, knew them better than anyone, and a few months after returning to club football with PSV recruited Park and then Lee.

Even with his countryman alongside him, Park found the transition difficult, in part because the Dutch club possessed a couple of fliers in his position called Arjen Robben and Dennis Rommedahl: "Hiddink was an excellent coach and I was happy to go with him. But the lifestyle and cultural difference is quite big between Europe and Korea. For instance, when a player makes a mistake in Asia, the spectators don't criticise it, and the other players encourage you to do better next time. I didn't adjust very well for a long time because of the different culture and because I was injured, so I couldn't show my ability enough."

A feeling that Eindhoven had only seen the best of him last season, when they lost only one league game and should have beaten Milan in the Champions' League semi-final, almost prompted him to stay there last summer. In the end, the lure of Manchester United and England proved too strong: "It was quite difficult to make a decision because I wanted to repay the coach who had looked after me, but I still wanted to improve my career and I knew Manchester United was one of the best clubs in the world."

It was a move that required another adjustment, not least to the permissive refereeing in England. As we spoke there was a newspaper on the table with a photograph of his Tottenham friend Lee squirming in pain after the appalling tackle by Manchester City's David Sommeil the previous night. "I think the referees here allow more bad tackles, giving less yellow cards. The play is faster than in Eindhoven and also more physical."

A player not used to criticism from team-mates must have found sharing a dressing room with Roy Keane interesting, though he is diplomatically silent on that topic. What Park also still finds difficult - which is perhaps just as well at United - is arguing with the manager, a trait foreign in every sense to Asian players: "I am getting used to it, but I don't think I can shout at the manager or other staff."

One of the first signs that he was finding his feet came in the exciting 3-2 win at Fulham in early October, when he was outstanding, and he has started a majority of Premiership games since then and come on in most others, including the 1-0 victory over Chelsea ("a good team but not invincible"). Now United's thoughts and aspirations turn to the cups, with Blackburn in the Carling Cup semi-final on Wednesday to follow Burton today. Then there is the little matter of the World Cup.

"In the Champions' League we had disappointing results and I am very sorry." (He makes it sound like a personal apology.) "We hope to do well in the two cups, and even if Burton is a small team, we have to show we are strong. In the World Cup draw we are quite pleased to play Togo, France and Switzerland and have an opportunity to get through to the second round."

The gentle figure beneath the Beatles mop-top is clearly not big on complaints, though he does manage a couple. "I am generally happy, except for the weather. Korea can be cold, but not so wet, and the daytime is really short here. Also, I think Korean food is more delicious than English. But to come to United was the right decision."

Kipling would be proud of him. Korea certainly is.


Big in Japan - but will they be as big here?

1: JUNICHI INAMOTO Attracted huge media and supporter interest when leaving Gamba Osaka to join Arsenal on loan as a 21-year-old midfielder in the summer of 2001. The Japanese international did not play a single League game but averaged 20 a season in two years at Fulham and is now in his second season at West Bromwich Albion.

2: HIDETOSHI NAKATA Like his compatriot Inamoto, the more attacking Nakata was a regular at the 2002 World Cup, by which time he had already become Japan's most famous footballing export by moving to Italy. He played for Perugia, Roma, Parma and Fiorentina before joining Bolton on loan.

3: LEE YOUNG-PYO After seven seasons with championship-winning South Korean club Anyang, Lee followed the younger Park Ji-Sung to PSV Eindhoven and established himself there as an attacking left-back or midfield player. Has proved a popular and talented acquisition for Spurs.

4: SUN JIHAI Joined Crystal Palace in 1998 with Chinese compatriot Fan Zhiyi, for one season only, but returned to England in 2002, by which time Fan Zhiyi had moved to Dundee. Badly injured in Manchester City's win over Chelsea last season but has been a valuable utility player, switching from defence to midfield.

5: LI TIE The fourth game of Li Tie's Everton career in 2002 was notable for pitching him against Sun Jihai in a match followed avidly in China. The tall midfielder went on to start 28 Premiership matches that season but has not featured this campaign after 18 months out with a broken shin.