Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Keen Park Ranger
"It's finished, the party is over," said Guus Hiddink last Thursday evening as he sat next to Park Ji-sung at a Seoul press conference. The two had been reunited after a special ten-year anniversary game to mark the exploits of the 2002 World Cup team. Is it hindsight kicking in or did the Dutchman give a knowing look sideways to the South Korean? "Now it's time to look to the future. If you look to the past too much then you start to go downhill rapidly."
None of the journalists in the room knew it at the time but Mark Hughes was also in Seoul and persuading the man who played over 200 games for Manchester United and won all kinds of medals, that the future was Queens Park Rangers.
The player and his father, a regular spokesman, have said repeatedly over the previous months that nothing would happen before the summer of 2013. Indeed, the Korean wanted to end his European career at Old Trafford. This had been the Parky line for years.
But as the club demonstrated last week with the announcement that they will issue an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, football is a business. A good offer came in for the midfielder who was getting on in years at 31 and finding minutes on the pitch harder to collect. Off he went and just like that a seven-year stretch came to an end.
Perhaps the time was right but it was a relationship that will go down in history for both Korean and Asian football. Here was a Korean who played more than a double century of games at the very top level, showed that imports from the east could handle and then excel in the English game and demonstrated a work ethic, a level of professionalism and dedication to the team that was exemplary.
It is often forgotten that Park was a hot property in Europe in the summer of 2005. Okay, he was not quite, as the QPR website declared on Monday, at the "global phenomenon" stage but he was a genuine star after playing a major role in PSV Eindhoven's march to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
The transfer to the Red Devils that summer was just rewards for his efforts and delighted a nation. There were the usual jibes of being bought just to shift shirts but as time passed and Park played, he showed that he had much to offer. His qualities have been written about thousands of times but suffice to say he played in some big games and was the first Asian to touch a whole number of famous trophies.
Despite the performances, the plaudits and some important goals, he was never quite a regular starter. Fairly regular injuries did not help and that some of these niggles were picked up when on national team duty led Park to hang up his South Korean national team boots after the 2011 Asian Cup and his 100th international appearance. The fact that he came back from that tournament with an injury that kept him out for over a month seemed to support his decision.
Yet in the second half of the season just finished, playing opportunities were few and far between and he made just three Premier League starts, the last of which was the crucial title showdown with Manchester City. It was one of his worst games in the famous red shirt as the action largely passed him by. A lack of match sharpness provides some excuse but it is sad that his last appearance was not one that he or the fans, who took the player to their hearts, will want to remember.
Thankfully, there are others - most of which were watched at home. Every game that Park played in was televised live as were most of the ones he did not. Ratings depended on his presence to the extent that a caption in the corner of the screen indicated to the casual observer whether he was on the pitch, on the bench or not in the squad at all. United may claim millions of fans in Korea but they may soon find that they were fans of the player first and followers of the club second.
That does not mean a mass altering of allegiance from the North West of England to West London. It was assumed by many that if/when Park left, there would be opportunities at some other big clubs such as Everton or Newcastle in England, a country in which he has settled well, or it would be time to spend a season or two in Spain or Germany.
Nobody expected QPR. Even with reports last week filtering out of London into Seoul that the club had signed a Korean player and were set to make an official announcement on Monday, nobody expected it to be Park. Most of the money was laid on Celtic midfielder Ki Sung-yeung, and there are still rumours he could be joining his former national team captain at Loftus Road.
QPR have little profile in East Asia. Since players from the region started heading to England, the club spent just last season in the Premier League (none of the lower leagues receive any coverage at all) and that was a relegation struggle. The response to the transfer was initially one of disappointment but there are signs that now the initial shock is wearing off, Korean fans are warming to the idea.
While the pride and excitement at seeing the player lift Premier League trophies and battle it out with Barcelona and Milan is not going to be repeated, QPR offer something that United never did. He is going to get regular playing time at Loftus Road. The compliments at the press conference may have been a little over the top but fans at home noted how relaxed and happy the player seemed. Talk of the captaincy also went down well.
Park is going to be a senior player and perhaps even the main man next season and that is something that has never happened in England. He would welcome it. He may have been a squad member at Manchester United but for years had the weight of 50 million compatriots on his shoulders every time he pulled on the red shirt of South Korea.
It will still be strange to see Park in the blue and white hoops that are famous in England but not yet in Asia. The club aims to change all that with the South Korea at the vanguard of their efforts. As always though, it is what happens on the pitch that matters and Park is ready to show that his party still has a few years left to run.