Champions League - Park ready to set Asian mark

Eurosport - Mon, 25 May 15:34:00 2009

Park Ji-sung, a hero in his native South Korea, has waited a long time for the chance to become the first Asian to appear in a Champions League final.

FOOTBALL 2009 Champions League Arsenal ManU Park - 0

The 28-year-old perpetual motion winger overcame "the biggest disappointment of my career" when Alex Ferguson left him out of the United side against Chelsea in last year's Moscow final.

A year on and Ferguson said last week that Park would definitely play against Barcelona in Rome on Wednesday. An unsung hero perhaps, but just as vital a cog in United's machine as Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo or Rio Ferdinand.

Park's appearance will delight his millions of fans in Korea and further enhance the reputation of a player who has overcome more barriers than most to achieve his dream.

A recent television documentary shown in South Korea gave an intriguing insight into how he has battled obstacles throughout his career.

Park told how his parents would supplement his mealtimes with an appalling-tasting frog soup to help build up his slight frame, how he overcame rejection from one junior team after another because they did not think he was big enough, and how he won over PSV Eindhoven fans who booed him when he arrived before eventually realising he was probably their best player.

"They said it was good for my health to become stronger and I ate anything that would improve my health," Park said of the soup in the documentary.

"There were times I threw up because of the taste but I kept going because the heart of wanting to become a better footballer was greater than a good-tasting meal every day. I was willing to do anything to become better."

He spent three seasons in Japan with Kyoto Purple Sanga and Guus Hiddink, now also in England as Chelsea's interim boss, recognised his qualities after taking South Korea to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup. He played in all seven games in that competition before spending three seasons at PSV, helping them to win the Dutch League and Cup double.

The move to United followed in 2005 and Park began to establish himself as a regular in United's team halfway through last season.

This season has been his best yet and his early goal in the second leg of the semi-final against Arsenal to put United 2-0 ahead on aggregate virtually sealed their place in the final.

Park also played a key role in the two semi-final matches against Barcelona last season, linking superbly with left back Patrice Evra to shackle the impact of Barca winger Lionel Messi. It could prove an effective ploy again on Wednesday.

Though feted at home, Park goes unrecognised when he walks down the streets of his adopted hometown of Wilmslow, near Manchester.

He does not mind that in the slightest. "Asian fans shout at me and chase me. When I am in Korea I can't walk down the streets. But I don't want to be famous or popular; I just want to be a good player."

Huge murals of him adorn office buildings in downtown Seoul and his commercial deals, as well as his playing contracts, have made him a wealthy man.

More importantly though, Park has proved that Asian players can succeed in the toughest, fastest league in the world.

Before last season's final he said: "When I was with PSV Eindhoven in Holland some people still thought Asian players weren't good enough to play in Europe.

"It's always good to rise to the challenge and prove them wrong. When I first came to United I had to prove my ability again. Now everyone knows I'm not just here just to sell shirts."

Park credits Hiddink for transforming his prospects, changing him from a defensive midfielder to an attacking one. Ferguson is now about to take his career to a new high with an appearance in the biggest club match of all.


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