Park ready to upstage Utd namesake
If FC Basel defeat Manchester United on Wednesday and dump the visitors out of the Champions League and into the dreaded Europa League, Swiss fans will probably not sing "Thursday night, Channel 5" to taunt the opposition supporters with the fact that Europe's second-tier competition is shown on the UK's least-rated terrestrial television network. Sometimes though, not being one of the big boys can make success all the sweeter - Park Joo-Ho is proving that.
The left-back from South Korea could have gone to Germany last summer but felt that Basel wanted him more than Stuttgart and he is now settled in a team that has surprised a few established names in the world's biggest club competition. A win will send United out and Basel through to the knockout stage. Even so, the team or the player don't get much attention - even at home Park could walk down the street without getting recognised unlike a certain member of the opposition on Wednesday - but that could be about to change.
"I wanted to play in Europe but more important than going to a big league, I wanted to go to a place where I would be able to play and have a chance to show what I can do," Park told ESPNsoccernet. "And the fact that FC Basel were in the Champions League this season was another reason."
And they are still very much in it. It has been a solid introduction to European football for the 24-year-old. Basel, on a seven game winning streak at home and on course for a hat-trick of domestic titles, prevented a number of 'Swiss Roll' related headlines in the English media at the end of September with quite a performance to draw 3-3 at Old Trafford.
After going behind to two early goals, the visitors came back to take a 3-2 lead and only a last-minute equaliser denied them what would have been a famous win. Park admitted that the initial feeling at Old Trafford when the final whistle sounded was frustration at the draw, not a common reaction for opposition players at the home of the team that has reached three out of the last four Champions League finals.
"It was very disappointing to concede a goal in the last minute but I think that to get a point there was a big result for us," said Park. "We played well in the game and while we were disappointed, soon after the match we could look back with satisfaction at our performance."
Like his team, the 24 year-old started uncertainly in Manchester, struggling initially to get a grip on Antonio Valencia. Like his team however, he improved as the game progressed and Basel could have scored more than the three they managed.
"It was the first time that I had played in such a big and famous stadium. That gave me a little pressure and made me feel nervous. In the first half, they scored two early goals so perhaps they took their foot off the pedal a little. After that, we had nothing to lose so we gave everything that we had which is why we were able to come back from behind and take the lead."
Now Basel have eight points, just one behind the Red Devils and Benfica in top spot. Park believes that as well as home advantage, there is something else in their favour on Wednesday. "Compared to Manchester United, we have less pressure on us, they are expected to win. Although we can expect fewer goalscoring opportunities, we will try to do our best and give our all and hope that we get a little luck. We know that we can do it."
"Of course, it will not be easy. Everyone knows that they are a strong team with lots of experience. Even when we had come back from behind to lead 3-2, they didn't seem fazed at all; they kept their heads and kept playing in a composed way. They kept going right until the end which was impressive to see. Also impressive was how they use all the space available on the pitch."
There was something else on the pitch at the end of the match. There is a saying back in Korea that you can't throw a stone in Seoul, Park's hometown, without it hitting someone named Kim but there could be as many as three Parks at St. Jakob-Park on Wednesday. There is Pak Kwang-Yong (although written differently in English, spelt and pronounced the same in Korean), a North Korean international talked of very highly by those involved with the national team at home, and, of course, Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United. All three finished the match at Old Trafford. If Basel can shock the English champions then for once the senior Park, who like his junior started his career in Japan and never played in the K-League, will be elbowed out of the headlines in the Seoul sports press.
The younger man is a fan. "After I have experience in playing in Europe, I admire Park Ji-Sung more than ever as he has been succeeding in the big leagues for over eight years. Before the game, he said a few words of encouragement to me and after the game he gave me the thumbs-up as if to say 'good job'."
He would relish something similar from the national team coach Cho Kwang-Rae. Park has made six appearances for his country, the last coming in a 3-0 loss in Japan in August. Like most, if not all, of his team-mates that Sapporo night, the defender, a first half substitute, struggled. A recall is possible as the left-back position has become a problem for the Taeguk Warriors since the retirement of Lee Young-Pyo is January after the Asian Cup. Park wants to play like Lee and bring stability to the role. When asked if he thought he should return to international football, he admitted that he hadn't yet showed Korean fans what he can do when wearing the famous red shirt.
"I didn't show my ability enough for the national team and didn't fit in as smoothly as I could have. I tried to do too much in a short time and I didn't keep my composure." He is sure that if or when he gets another chance, he will be able to impress after what he has learned in Switzerland. "The coach is one who places importance on positioning and because of that I have improved this part of my game. I am getting stronger after training with European players."
He will be playing against some of the best European players in a big European game on Wednesday, showing once again there is more than one path to the big-time.