Thursday 01 March 2018, 13:03

Park: There’s still a gap between Asian teams and the best

  • Park Jisung played & scored in three World Cups, reaching the 2002 semis

  • At Manchester United, he became one of Asia's most decorated players

  • Park spoke to about Russia 2018 and his role as a FIFA Legend

Park Jisung knows all about the importance of the FIFA World Cup™. For all his many achievements at the highest level of European club football, the Korea Republic legend maintains that he was “happiest in his career” at the 2002 World Cup – and that that tournament remains his “proudest moment”. As he told “I couldn’t even explain how much that World Cup meant to me.”

Park was a key player in the Taeguk Warriors side that reached the semi-finals in ‘02, scoring the goal against Portugal that secured their place in the knockout stage for the first time. Korea Republic coach Guus Hiddink was so enamoured by the tireless midfielder’s all-action style that, in the wake of the World Cup, he signed him for PSV Eindhoven. “That,” Park has recalled, “was the turning point in my life.”

The then 22-year-old grasped the opportunities presented by European football. Having shone for PSV, and helped the team to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, he attracted admirers such as Sir Alex Ferguson, who prised him from the Netherlands to join his Manchester United side.

And it was at Old Trafford that Park established himself as arguably the most successful Asian player of all time, winning four Premier League titles and becoming the first man from his continent to play in a UEFA Champions League final and win the FIFA Club World Cup.

He also went on to represent his country at two more World Cups, although neither was able to match the achievements and emotion of his 2002 debut. It was mindful of those experience, and of Asian teams’ struggles at recent editions, that Park looked forward to Russia 2018 with modest expectations. For Korea Republic, is surviving the group phase the main goal in Russia? Park Jisung: Yeah, I think so. There is still a gap between Asian teams and those at a world-class level, so that means we can’t aim for the semi-finals or whatever. First of all, we need to get through the group stage. And if you look at the draw and the seedings, most Asian teams were in Pot 4. That tells you that we are still a weak continent compared to others. So it will be so difficult for us to get through the group phase, and we need to focus on that. For all Asian teams, that will be the big target.

Tell us about Ki Sungyeung and Son Heungmin. Are they Korea Republic’s most important players? I think that’s fair to say, yes. These two guys are very important for our team. Both have already been to the World Cup, they have experience - and they have experience of playing against the best players. That benefits them but it also allows them to bring that experience to the other players.

Have increased opportunities to play abroad helped the Korea Republic team? I think it has benefited us because at the moment we can’t prepare like we did for the 2002 World Cup. Back then, most of the players were playing in Korea and we could gather together for a training camp. These days, that’s not possible because most of our players play abroad and we need to stick to FIFA’s regulations for training dates and matches, which are already fixed.

So, because training time together is limited, it’s very important that our players go abroad to gain experience of playing against strong teams and players. That can then raise the level of the national team, and that’s why I have always encouraged South Korean players to move abroad, particularly to Europe, so they can adapt to the highest level and improve themselves.

Looking at the World Cup in general, who do you see as the favourites for the title? Brazil have been doing very well and Germany are very strong, but it’s a tough question, particularly for this tournament. It will be so exciting to see because it’s very difficult to choose one team as a favourite for this World Cup.

What do you expect of Russia as hosts? I think every country in the world has a unique way to express their country through the World Cup. So it will be interesting to see what Russia focuses on and what they will want to show the world. I believe every World Cup has unique moments and unique things to see. I have been here before for the final of the Champions League and the atmosphere and everything around it was great, so I believe they will manage this World Cup well too.

As you say, you have memories of Moscow and the Luzhniki, having been there with Man United when the team won the Champions League. My memories of that are not the best unfortunately, because I didn’t play [Ferguson later admitted to great regret at omitting Park from the squad]. But my team won the Champions League, so we had a big celebration. I still remember the stadium and the atmosphere, so I’ll be looking forward to see how it has changed and what the atmosphere will be like.

There is a lot of talk about technology at this World Cup. What do you think about the use of technology in football? Technology is everywhere in the world and in every sport, so football can’t be resistant. So, yeah, we need to do it. But how we use it is the most important question and we need to think about it and look at what things are most suitable for football.

Finally, you are part of the FIFA Legends programme these days. Can you tell us a little about that, and why you became involved? I think it’s quite important for the former players to join in because we have experience from right through our careers. Also, because the fans follow players, we can influence the fans. And football is not only for players – it is for everyone who loves football. So if former players can participate during FIFA-organised events, it means they can influence fans and also current players. It provides another connection between fans and football.