“As I become better today than I was yesterday and tomorrow better than today, day by day, I become a better player.”
- Park Ji-Sung (1)
Park Ji-Sung wrote this in a journal he kept starting in elementary school. Every day he would write down the things that he could improve on in soccer (1). Through obstacles growing up and injuries down the road, he kept onward, unwaveringly working to improve himself day by day. This attitude of relentless determination in his pursuit of his passion in soccer became the headline of his story in the soccer world, manifesting in his playstyle and paving the way to becoming considered the best Asian soccer player ever. Though his story and influence are often glanced over in the greater soccer community, the people of Korea all know him and take pride in his embodiment of Korean culture.
Park’s career in soccer was an unlikely one. From a young age, he was too small. He remained shorter and lighter than all the other players growing up, but he was quick and relentless. His speed and his size earned him the nickname “Mickey Mouse” in elementary school among his teammates, where he took his team from last in the league to first (1). He later led his high school team to win the Korean National Sports Festival high school soccer tournament in 1998 (2).
Despite his successes, his size continued to plague his early career. Top university teams and clubs rejected Park, stating that he was “too weak and too small” to ever make it big or make a big impact on a professional level soccer team (3). Park was eventually noticed by the Korean National Team coach Huh Jing-Moo and the Japanese Kyoto Purple Sanga who both decided to give the unknown and doubted Park a chance despite some criticism. These decisions lit the fuse that would lead to the explosion of Park’s name and career.
The 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by Korea and Japan, set the stage for Park to emblaze his name into the Korean psyche. The final group stage game for Korea was against Portugal with Portugal as the favorite by far. Korea needed to win to advance to the knockout stages. After 70 minutes of a scoreless game, a failed corner attempt followed by a recovery by the Korean team led to a cross by Lee Young-Pyo to Park Ji-Sung. Park controlled the ball with his chest, tricked defender Sérgio Conceição with a juggle from his right foot to his left, and immediately shot left-footed through the legs of goalkeeper Vítor Baía (4). The Korean response was electric. The goal won Korea the game and provided the necessary momentum for Korea to beat Italy and Spain for a 4th place finish in the 2002 World Cup – the best finish in Korean history and the best finish from any nation outside of South America and Europe in a World Cup since 1930. Park Ji-Sung stated in an interview post-career that this goal against Portugal was the most memorable goal of his career. He had always dreamt of what it would feel like to score a goal in the World Cup, but he had never dreamt that he would score one of the most famous Korean World Cup goals in history (5).
From here, Park would go on to become the arguably the greatest Asian player to ever play the sport of soccer. Park played at PSV Eindhoven for a few years before being recruited by Sir Alex Ferguson to play for Manchester United. Park won 19 trophies and became the first Asian to win the Champions League and FIFA World Cup (2). His selfless contributions to the team and work ethic on the pitch even when he didn’t have the ball could not be over emphasized. One could argue that great players that overshadowed Park’s abilities like Christiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, and others could not have accomplished the things that they did without Park’s assistance. Both his teammates and coach noted on many occasions their acknowledgement of Park’s contributions to the team, and United fans bestowed the nickname “Three Lungs” to Park during his stay (2). Though his contributions were acknowledged and his ability to run the full 90 minutes of the game noticed, Park’s career remained largely underappreciated by the world soccer community, and he remained the “unsung hero” that Rio Ferdinand called him (6).
Europe and the rest of the soccer world recognized Park’s work ethic on the field at the time, but they didn’t sing him the praises that he deserved. They didn’t know that he was never supposed to make it because of his size. They didn’t know that his father quit his job to open a meat shop to support his son’s dreams. Though watched Park shut down the Italian football star Pirlo with his unbelievable speed and endurance, they didn’t know that his relentless playstyle was inspired by his mother (3). Though they witnessed Park’s selfless playstyle and devotion to the team, they were never aware of how his difficulty with English created hardship when he first arrived at Manchester United (7). Though they witnessed his success, they never learned the failures and rejections that Park went through to make it to the European stage.
Korea, however, was a different story. In Korea, Park became an icon – the face of soccer. To them, Park played the pivotal role in Korea’s success in the 2002 World Cup with his goal against Portugal, sparking the soccer fever that would overtake Korea. Park became a success story of the Korean culture’s emphasis on work ethic and dedication. Park’s dedication to the game and his underappreciated discipline to his passion embodied the Korean spirit’s values, and thus his name became a point of pride and nationalism for all Korean persons. Truly they believed that day by day, he became better, and day by day, they could too.
- 디씨멘터리. “박지성.. 호날두와 피를로가 그렇게나 부러워한, 차범근과 손흥민보다 위대한 희대의 레전드.. 퍼거슨이 맨유로 데려간 유일한 한국인.” YouTube, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jcf2vxN6Qnk
- Wikipedia contributors. “Park Ji-sung.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 Feb. 2020. Web. 13 Feb. 2020.
- FIFATV. “Ji-sung Park : “I was told I was too weak” .” YouTube, 25 Feb. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GICu69NP-9g
- Ali, Zeeshan. “ 40 Greatest Goals in World Cup History: #36 Ji-sung Park – Portugal vs South Korea (’02).” SportSkeeda. 20 Dec. 2019.
- KBS World. “Forever Captain! Interview with Park Jisung [Entertainment Weekly/2018.05.28].” YouTube. 28 May, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ys3FIDT9nRg
- Gupta, Shantanu. “Park Ji-sung quotes: Best Quotes about Park Ji-sung.” FootieCentral. 24 Jul. 2017.
- Lisaigoncali. “Ji Sung Park talks about the beginnings of playing for Manchester United.” YouTube, 12 Jul. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfBD81aZydA