In a career spanning over 7 years, 205 appearances and 27 goals, Park Ji-Sung has polarized opinions like few other Manchester United players. Even as the finishing touches are being put on the £ 2 million deal to take the South Korean to Queen’s Park Rangers, the debate still rages on what was Park’s greatest contribution to the United cause: in the crudest terms, sell shirts or win football matches? The cynics will vouch for the former whereas his legions of admirers will swear on the latter. The truth though, as in most cases, lies somewhere in the middle.
Park Ji-Sung made his first big splash in the world of football in the grandest stage of them all, the 2002 World Cup. The diminutive South Korean put in some scintillating performances in the tournament as the co-hosts took the world by storm by reaching the semifinals. Park was at the forefront of that memorable run and scored one of the most famous goals in history of Asian football with the winner, a clinically dispatched half volley, against the mighty Portugal in the group stages. The goal knocked out the pre-tournament favourites and catapulted Park into instant stardom beyond the borders of his country. The world took note.
It came as no big surprise when one year hence PSV Eindhoven, managed by Guus Hiddink – the man who masterminded South Korea’s World Cup campaign, signed Park from the Japanese club Kyoto Purple Sanga. His first season in Europe was marked by long spells on the sidelines due to injuries and lack of form. But second season onwards, Park’s brilliance shone through and he soon established himself as a key cog in the well-drilled machine that was PSV under Hiddink. The 2004-05 season turned out to be something of an annus mirabilis for both club and the player as PSV did the domestic double with Park relishing the extra responsibility bestowed on him post departure of the likes of Arjen Robben, Dennis Rommedahl and Mateja Kezman.
But it was Park’s displays during PSV’s Champions League campaign that season that earned him the most glowing reviews across the continent. In the semifinal against AC Milan, Park opened the scoring in the second leg to lead PSV to a memorable 3-1 victory on the night. Even though the 2-0 reversal suffered by PSV in the first leg at San Siro resulted in them losing out on away goals, Park’s star was firmly established. A move to one of Europe’s elite beckoned. In the words of Hiddink, “Unlike most of the South Korean players who made a move to Europe straight after the 2002 World Cup, Park Ji-sung has made it.”
It was Manchester United who came calling before any of the other big clubs and soon a £ 4 million deal was formalized with PSV. The move immediately came under immense scrutiny with many questioning the true motive behind the deal. The transfer was one of first since the controversial takeover of the club by Malcolm Glazer and to many supporters the relatively low money deal signaled the austerity which would have to be maintained in the transfer market by the club saddled with gargantuan debt.
On the pitch, Park struggled to acclimatize to the English game straight away and found himself playing a peripheral role. It took until December for the South Korean to notch up his first goal for the club and that too came in a League Cup tie at Birmingham City. He scored his first league goal for United in a 2-0 victory over Arsenal late on in the season.
Even though during the course of the next few seasons Park would struggle to hold down a permanent spot in the first eleven, he garnered a reputation for being a sort of big match player. Due to his tireless industry and incessant hustling of opposition player on the ball, Sir Alex Ferguson always seemed to call upon him in matches against the leading lights of Premier League and Europe where defensive discipline took priority over free-flowing offense.
Park seemed to revel in such situations and developed the singular knack of delivering on the biggest occasions and thereby justifying his selection. He was, in fact, one of only three United players to have played every minute of the quarterfinal and semifinal ties of 2008 Champions League against AS Roma and FC Barcelona, respectively. Surprisingly though, he was omitted from the squad of 18 in the final against Chelsea, a decision which later Sir Alex branded as the toughest one he had to made in his long managerial career.
The omission turned out to be even more galling for Park in retrospect as in the subsequent finals of 2009 and 2011, both of which he started, United were thwarted by the irrepressible Barcelona side. It would be worth mentioning though the key role played by Park in reaching both the finals in the first place, especially in 2009 when he scored the vital opener against Arsenal (a club against which he scored 5 goals in 12 appearances for United) in the semifinal second leg at Emirates.
Towards the later part of his Old Trafford career, injuries caught up with him with years of endless running taking toll on his aging body. In what turned out to be his final season for United, Park was reduced to a bit-part role reminiscent of his early days at the club. Even though he made a total of 28 appearances, he failed to influence games as he had done in the years gone by. His last goal in United colours came in a FA Cup 4th round tie at Anfield against Liverpool. This, staggeringly, was also the first time in his United career when he scored in a losing effort. His final appearance for the club came in the crucial Manchester derby, the defeat in which irrevocably turned the title race in favour of the blue half of Manchester.
Park’s listless display in the match in which he was a sorry shadow of his former rampaging self came under stinging criticism as did Sir Alex’s decision to select him for the encounter. The man who, in his peak, had been one of the first names on the team sheet for such big occasions, the archetypal big match player, looked like a spent force utterly bereft of inspiration. With only a year remaining in his contract and despite his wishes to end his career at Old Trafford, it had become apparent that Park had reached the end of the rope at Manchester United.
With the arrival of Shinji Kagawa, the latest Asian to make headlines across Europe, Park was relegated further down the pecking order. All that remained to be resolved was whether United could find a buyer willing to offer a price too good to turn down for the 31 year old.
In QPR, bankrolled by the Asian billionaire Tony Fernandez, United had found that buyer. A deal that could go up to £ 5 million based on performances certainly makes financial sense to United for a squad player. For Park, this represents a chance to feature more regularly on the pitch even though it comes at the cost of him trading off title races and European campaigns for potential relegation scraps.
From a commercial perspective, and any discussion of impact of Park Ji-Sung at United will be ultimately pointless without looking at the commerce, Park has been an outstanding hit for the club in the lucrative Asian market. In his homeland, United had earned millions in revenue from merchandise sale year after year since his move. As per recent figures, over a million people in South Korea are subscribed to United branded credit cards with Park’s image printed on it. Over 40 million South Koreans watch United in action every season and out of an entire population of 49 million, 27 million are claimed to be United supporters. In whichever way one looks at it, the numbers are mind-blowing.
To United’s money men, it equals to multi-million in cold hard cash. In this regard, Park had paid for his own transfer cost and wages and then some. However, all these facts and figures had armed the conspiracy theorists with more compelling evidence that Park’s transfer to United was driven by merchandising goals rather than footballing ones.
In the final reckoning though, it will be an insult to Park’s Old Trafford legacy to brand him as a player bought solely to sell shirts. While not underestimating his contribution to United’s profitability in the Asian markets, Park had done enough on the pitch to justify his transfer. Over the time, he became a fan’s favourite at Old Trafford due to whole-hearted commitment to the team’s cause every time he was called upon. Rarely could anyone ever criticize him for the lack of trying. Whatever he may have lacked in natural skills, he more than made up for in industry.
In many ways, he was a manager’s dream: a player tactics wise disciplined enough to carry out the manager’s instructions to its finest details and effort wise always giving his hundred percent. The trust that Sir Alex had in him when it came to the crunch encounters testifies to this fact. He should also be remembered for being the trend-setter for Asian players in the Premier League. Prior to him only Junichi Inamoto of Japan had been able to cut his teeth at this level and that too, with all due respect, at clubs like Fulham and West Bromwich Albion.
Park was the first Asian to make his mark at the top of the league and his trophy haul of 4 Premier Leagues, 1 Champions League, 3 League Cups and a Club World Cup is sure to inspire the present and future generations of Asian players looking to make it big in England. After all’s said and done, Park Ji-Sung will exit Manchester United with his head held high, proud of his achievements there and carrying the best wishes of its millions of supporters. Thank you and goodbye.