SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean Park Ji-sung announced his retirement from soccer on Wednesday, bringing the curtain down on a career that took him to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals and saw him become the first Asian to play in a UEFA Champions League final.
Park’s industry, energy and work ethic made him a favourite of Alex Ferguson during his time at Manchester United and his performances in England and with Dutch side PSV Eindhoven helped raise the profile of Korean soccer around the world.
The 33-year-old, who called time on his international career after the 2011 Asian Cup, said he could not continue to play at the highest level because of knee issues but added that he was leaving the game without any regrets.
“I didn’t cry about it yesterday, and I‘m not crying about it today, that means I‘m leaving with no regrets,” he told a news conference at the Park Ji-sung Football Centre in Suwon, where he has a street named after him.
“I enjoyed playing football. I have achieved more than I have thought I would. I‘m truly grateful for all the support I have received and I will live the rest of my life thinking how I can pay it back.”
After leaving Manchester United in 2012, Park signed for Queen’s Park Rangers but spent the last season on loan at PSV. Issues with his knee sidelined him for long spells over the last two years.
“I thought about getting an operation but even if I did it wouldn’t mean the injury would be gone completely. Naturally, retirement was the option,” he added.
Park grabbed the spotlight at the 2002 World Cup finals, which were co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.
Under the tutelage of Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, the shaggy-haired midfielder flourished on the game’s biggest stage, scoring the winning goal against Portugal to seal Korea’s place in the knockout stages for the first time.
After the World Cup, Hiddink was appointed manager of PSV and brought Park with him, where, after a tough start, he won over the fans and caught the eye of then Manchester United manager Ferguson.
Park, described by Ferguson as the “ultimate professional”, spent seven seasons at United, winning four Premier League titles and the Champions League in 2008, though he was surprisingly omitted from the squad for the final.
In 2009, he became the first Asian to play in the Champions League final when he started in United’s 2-0 loss to Barcelona.
“The proudest moment for me was of course the 2002 World Cup,” said Park, flanked by his father and his mother, who was in tears throughout the news conference.
”The most influential figure in my life is Guus Hiddink. He took me abroad after the World Cup and that was the turning point of my life.
“Ferguson also helped me play at the world’s top level... the coaches I’ve spent time with are definitely my great asset.”
Park gave himself a “seven out of 10” for his career and said he would pull on the PSV uniform for the last time on May 28 when the Dutch side visit Korea to play in a charity match as a tribute to the victims of the recent ferry disaster.
Park said if he had to choose only one team to play for it would be the national side.
“I would choose to wear the national team uniform because it was my lifetime dream to wear it.”
Reporting by Narae Kim; Editing by John O'Brien