April 22, 2011

SEOUL, South Korea -- "Are you going to do a Zidane?" asked a reporter at KFA House in Seoul on the last day of January, though it sounded more like a plea than a question. Park Ji-sung smiled and said that he was not going to come out of international retirement to inspire his team at the 2014 World Cup just as Zidane did for France in 2006. Not all the journalists crammed into the conference room or the corridors outside believed him.

Time will tell if he can resist the inevitable calls that will come -- assuming the team qualifies for Brazil. It doesn't matter how strongly South Korea is fancied, the Seoul media will speculate on the player's return, then demand and beg Park to don the red shirt once again.

Back in the summer of 2010, I talked to Park about his retirement plans.

"In 2014, I will be 33," said Park on a warm day, just north of Seoul with the scars and stud marks on his legs a testament to all the games he has played. "It will be good for the national team if the young players that are coming through can prove that they are ready on the pitch and ready to start with the national team. I don't want it to be that the coach just uses me for my name. The national team must have only the best players who are there on merit."

The "will-he won't he?" saga will continue but Park is used to it all. All the news about his every movement in England is rigorously reported by the press at home, as is all the news regarding his rivals for starting places in the national team. It is not just the exploits, but the analysis and opinions on Park. Every one of which, even if it (or the speaker) is only vaguely related to the man in question, is translated and published. The interest is huge -- small wonder that almost 1.5 million Koreans are said to have Manchester United credit cards. As useful as he undoubtedly is commercially, he showed once again at home to Chelsea in the recent UEFA Champions League quarterfinal win that he is in the team on merit (scoring the decisive goal in the 2-1 win).

For that, it is not only in the Land of the Morning Calm where he is feted. Park has been the leading Asian player for the best part of a decade. At the Asian Cup in January, Indian journalists waited in line to have their picture taken with him. In Japan last May, even hard-bitten members of the Tokyo press pack did something similar and the Jakarta city government expressed its disappointment in 2007 when he pulled out of that year's Asian Cup hosted in Southeast Asia.

When he did play for Korea, he rarely put a foot wrong in his 11-year international career during which he became the first Asian player to score at three successive World Cups. He made exactly 100 appearances, his last coming in January's Asian Cup semifinal penalty shootout defeat at the hands of Japan. As captain, he led and encouraged a new generation of young players. Often his teammates spoke of their pride at being led out onto the pitch by a Manchester United player and the confidence it gave them, especially at the World Cup.

"It has always been an honor to play for my country," said Park. "There is pressure from the outside, but it has always been good pressure and always made me want to perform better and play harder."

His club career has been even better. A slow start at PSV Eindhoven in 2002 (then-teammate Marc van Bommel "helpfully" pointed it out to the media at the time) ended with him becoming a star and earning a 2005 move to Manchester United where has won three Premier League titles and been a key player in the team's success in Europe.

Balancing club and country was not easy. Long trips to the Far East are the reason why he has hung up his Korean boots. His habit of picking up injuries while on national team duty meant that his decision to focus on his club career went down better in Manchester than Seoul. Such sentiments were reinforced when you consider that after getting thrown up in the air by his national teammates after his last international match in January, he didn't play for Manchester United until April.

Park wasn't present for the Korea squad that faced Honduras on March 25 but still, all the talk focused on who was going to stake a claim to his usual spot on the left side of the "three" in South Korea's 4-2-3-1. Coach Cho Kwang-rae gave 21-year-old Kim Bo-kyong a chance. The Cerezo Osaka star's willingness to take players on and movement off the ball impressed in an excellent performance from the Taeguk Warriors who ran out 4-0 winners. For one night, Park wasn't missed at all as Korea continued where it left off at the Asian Cup by attacking with speed, precision and fluency.

It was a reminder that there is still talent available to the 2002 World Cup semifinalists. Young midfielders such as Ki Sung-yong at Celtic, Yoon Bitgaram, scorer of a fantastic winning strike in the quarterfinal of the Asian Cup against Iran and Koo Ja-cheol, Asian Cup top scorer and recent VfL Wolfsburg signing, have all made waves at various times in their short careers. However, the trio will need to keep improving to come close to matching the exploits of their former national team captain. Then there is SV Hamburg wideman Son Heung-min. The 18 year-old has scored three goals in six starts in the Bundesliga this season and has already played the same number of games for the national team.

The versatility of most Korean attackers means that Park's role could easily be handed to Lee Chung-yong who is about to finish his second season with Bolton Wanderers and already has a wealth of experience despite being just 22.

"He has been unbelievable for Bolton and then with the national team as well," said Park when asked him about Lee. "He is a player who is getting bigger in the national team as well. So, hopefully, he gets more experience and, yes, he can replace me. He has good skills, a good mentality and is good physically. Not as strong as he could be, but he can learn all that. He is smart and, hopefully, he will grow up this way and he's going to be the best player in our country."

It was spoken almost like a coach. One popular April Fool's joke in the Korean media had Park returning just before the World Cup as a player-coach but he has no such ambitions.

"I don't want to be a coach. I know that for a manager it is quite difficult to lead a team. I'm not good at that kind of thing, like controlling 11 players," said Park. "It would be hard for me. Tactically, for me, it is interesting but the manager is just not about tactics, he has to deal with the players individually as well. For me, half of it is good, but the other half is not good. That's why I don't want to do it."

In terms of an off-the-field replacement and new idol, perhaps only Park Chu-young could come close. The AS Monaco marksman was a huge star when he broke through in 2004 but it was only with a move out of the Seoul goldfish bowl to Ligue 1in 2008 that he really started to develop. He has done well by the Mediterranean and has managed 12 goals this season despite the fact that Monaco is flirting with relegation. If he hadn't injured his knee in a goal celebration in December -- when kneeling in prayer on a frozen pitch, the weight of his teammates jumping on top of him caused something to crack -- many Koreans believe the team would have finished first at the Asian Cup.

Park Chu-young is expected to leave Monaco this summer and the Korean media wants to see him move to England. Liverpool has been mentioned, a link that has strengthened of late with the English club's sponsors Standard Chartered pushing for some Asian players at Anfield.

Park Chu-young's problem is one that Park Ji-sung never had and that is North Korea. The heroes of 2002 had their two-year military duty period waived by a grateful government. Park Chu-young, now 25, must complete his term by the time he is 30. Gold medals at the Asian Games or any medal at the Olympics do the job too. Assuming Korea qualify for London in 2012, Park will be an overage player in what would likely be his last chance to avoid what is looking increasingly inevitable.

It remains to be seen if the same can be said about a possible return to the national team for Park Ji-sung or whether he will continue to focus solely on his club career. After once again helping Manchester United to move to the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League and within sight of another Premier League title, he has plenty going on. If his countrymen can't see him in a Korean shirt again, then seeing him lift the biggest trophy in club soccer at Wembley in May would be considerable consolation.

John Duerden has been living in Asia for more than a decade and has been called "The voice of Asian football" by the BBC.

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