x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Park Ji-sung's philosophy is simple - there is no 'I' in football

Instead of making a scene for being left out of the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow, the South Korean star worked harder for place in the Manchester United team.

Park Ji-sung, left, has been at the heart of Manchester United’s success this season.
Park Ji-sung, left, has been at the heart of Manchester United’s success this season.

Fancy sampling the secret potion of Asia's finest footballer? Be prepared for a questionable culinary experience. "The frog juice?" laughs Park Ji-sung. "Actually, it was disgusting."

Boiled down South Korean amphibians. The bounty of a 20-hour round-trip from Park's childhood home in Suwon to his father's rural birthplace in Go-heung county. Forcibly fed to help a slight, 14-year-old schoolboy seeking the stature and stamina required of a professional sportsman.

"My father went to catch wild frogs," Park says. "I was skinny and weak and my father heard their juice would give me size and strength. It tasted very, very bad ... but I had to drink it because I wanted to be a footballer and everyone said I needed to be bigger and stronger."

An appetite for the least palatable parts of the game has produced a footballer capable of tipping a very good team towards greatness. Park's mobility is such that for Manchester United teammate Patrice Evra "it feels like there are two or three Jis on the pitch".

He can play anywhere in the midfield, combining an ability to break unpredictably beyond opponents with prophetic defensive positioning and clean, precise tackling.

Sorely missed during a three-month mid-season absence, Park has been fundamental to a trio of wins over Chelsea in the Champions League and Premier League. From his six seasons at Old Trafford, he has taken four English titles, a Club World Cup, three League Cups, and reached three European finals, his value to United increasing by the campaign.

"He's got the discipline, intelligence and football knowledge you need in the biggest games," says Sir Alex Ferguson. "He's a fantastic professional, he moves and plays and moves again. He doesn't watch what other players are doing with the ball, he gets himself into another position so he can be involved again. He can be really important."

Park's own take on his playing style is amusing. He chuckles when presented with Ferguson's praise, talks of adopting little qualities from Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, yet balks at the idea that he's some kind of tactical obsessive.

The 30 year old neither watches much televised football, nor has any intention of graduating into club management. His reading of the game, he says, comes from doing exactly what a series of coaches of the calibre of Ferguson, Guus Hiddink, Carlos Queiroz and Pim Verbeek told him to do.

"I like tactics because I want to play," Park says. "The manager wants to show his tactics and if I do them perfectly he'll pick me. It doesn't matter how I'm asked to play, or if the football is good or bad, I like football when I'm on the pitch, not when I'm on the sidelines.

"That's why I'm always thinking of where I have to move, where I have to go, where I have to pass. I have to run a lot defensively. My performance is not only to attack, to dribble, it's all the things I have to involve myself in for the team.

"My priority is what the manager wants me to do. That's why I always have to think more tactically."

A fulcrum of the South Korea squad that reached the 2002 World Cup semi-final, a scorer at two more World Cups, and his nation's captain until retiring from internationals earlier this year following the Asian Cup, Park believes that Korean footballers are culturally predisposed to play with such strategic intelligence and team consciousness.

"The English can argue with the manager but where I grew up there is no discussion," he says. "There is no thinking about any other things, we just follow the direction of the manager. That makes us focus more on the tactics and we learn a lot. Also in our culture we have to help each other.

"In England you see players arguing 'Why aren't you in this position?' In Korea we try to say it in a polite way: 'If I go there, come here'. We don't argue; it's not possible on the pitch. It's not like 'Me, me', there are no selfish players. It's cultural differences that make us the kind of players who learn a lot."

Park's diligent energy has won him silverware in every club he's played at, including an Emperor's Cup medal in his final game at Kyoto Purple Sanga and two Dutch League titles with Hiddink at PSV Eindhoven. There have been times, though, when the studied obedience may have worked to his disadvantage.

Ferguson has said that leaving Park out of United's 2008 Champions League final victory "was the hardest decision I've ever had to make". Coming after a semi-final second-leg defeat of Barcelona in which Park covered almost 12km while shutting down Lionel Messi, it shocked. Yet may have been made easier by Park's character.

"Easier than dropping an English player?" ponders Park. "Maybe possible. Nobody knows that but it doesn't matter. He made his decision, he explained why, and our culture is to follow the manager.

"At that moment I was thinking it was not fair; I am human. When I heard it I was thinking 'Wow, I can't believe. Why me?' But I couldn't say anything, I would just upset everyone. After that I started blaming myself. The day after the match I was thinking of the future: 'If you want to play in the final you have to improve yourself.'"

Twelve months on, Park started the next Champions League final against Barcelona, confirming his status as his continent's most successful footballer and driving his celebrity to still more uncomfortable levels. When United toured Asia that summer, his teammates were surprised to find themselves travelling in an jet decorated with the features of a player who represents the likes Gillette, Nike and LG in Korea.

In his home city of Suwon there is a street named after Park, and, off that street, the Ji-sung Park Football Centre. His own brainchild, a year since its establishment the academy is training 600 local five to 12 year olds to a programme of the player's own design.

Park will visit again this close season, a period in which he expects his own future at United to be determined. With just a season left on his current contract, he would have suitors across Europe were he to be made available for transfer.

"For the moment I am focused on the Champions League final," he says. "I can think after that on my contract or my future. Man United is an important club and I am happy if I'm seen as an important part of the club. In football anything can happen, but I've been here six years and I like this club, and then my future is to decide."

 

sports@thenational.ae