SEOUL (Reuters) - From a boy who drank frog juice to help him grow, to a star of world football lapping up fame and acclaim at Manchester United, Park Ji-sung’s path to becoming Korea’s greatest ever soccer player is the stuff of dreams.
Once deemed too small and frail to make the grade, Park’s brand of high octane football, built around unquestioning discipline and bottomless reserves of energy, thrilled fans around the world and put South Korea on the soccer map.
A rare blend of talent and humility, the energetic midfielder brought the curtain down on his career on Wednesday with typical modesty, giving himself a “seven out of 10” for his achievements.
With four English Premier League titles, two Dutch championships and a UEFA Champions League winners medal in his trophy cabinet, few would object if he gave himself another couple of points in his self appraisal.
“I was so lucky. Fortunate,” said Park when asked to sum up his career on Wednesday.
“I have achieved more than I ever 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.”
Addressing the media at his ‘Park Ji-sung Football Centre’ in Suwon, on the outskirts of Seoul, the 33-year-old told reporters his worn out knee would no longer let him perform the way he once could.
On the stage in front of him, his father had dressed mannequin’s torsos in the uniforms of all the team’s Park had played for - from elementary, middle and high school, through to Myongji University, Kyoto Purple Sanga, PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United and Queens Park Rangers.
There is one he treasures more than the rest, though, the one he would choose to wear if he was forced to pick.
“I would choose to wear the national team uniform because it was my lifetime dream to wear it.”
Had it not been for the belief of his coaches at Suwon Technical High School, however, when Park was a quiet, scrawny kid struggling to compete against bigger, stronger players, he may never have got the chance to pull on the South Korea strip.
Park’s father was so worried about his lack of size as a youngster he made him drink boiled frog extract to give him energy and help him grow.
Whether it was his constant battles with bigger opponents, or a desire to prove his doubters wrong, or even the effects of the frog juice, Park worked harder, ran further, practised longer than anyone else.
He dedicated himself to improving his close control, his touch and passing, and built up his endurance levels to such an extent fans nicknamed “The Oxygen Tank” and “Three-Lunged Park”.
After university, Park left for Japan and guided Kyoto to the J.League’s second division title in 2001, and the Emperor’s Cup in 2002, but it was during the World Cup on home soil that year when his star shone brightest.
Park flourished under the guidance of Guus Hiddink, the Dutch master who led the Koreans to the World Cup semi-finals.
“The proudest moment for me was of course the 2002 World Cup,” said Park, whose goal against Portugal sealed Korea’s spot in the knockout stage for the first time.
“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.”
Park joined Hiddink at PSV Eindhoven after the World Cup, and after a slow start, took the Dutch league by storm.
His all-action style caught the eye of then Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who shelled out almost $7 million to buy him in 2005.
While some believed he would be no more than an expensive substitute at United, going as far as to dub him “Park bench”, the Korean soon won the sceptics over with his dynamic forays on the flanks and selfless playing style.
He would also suffer one of the biggest disappointments of his career when he was surprisingly dropped for the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea despite having played every minute of the quarter and semi-finals.
Ferguson called it the hardest decision of his career. Park said he was happy the team won and that he would have other opportunities to play in big games.
A year later, Park lined up for Manchester United against Barcelona at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, becoming the first Korean to play in a Champions League final.
Looking to the future, Park said on Wednesday he would still be involved with Korean football in some capacity, but ruled out the possibility of following his mentor Hiddink into management.
“I have no intention of becoming a coach,” he added.
”I’ll probably think about becoming an expert in sports administration, that’s just one possibility.
“But I will do anything I can to help South Korean soccer advance and develop.”
Additional repoprting by Narae Kim; Editing by John O'Brien