Asian hopes pinned on Park
Every December, Manchester United fans sing the 'Twelve Days of Cantona' song to repeatedly pay homage to their French hero. On Saturday, in the UEFA Champions League final, perhaps they should request a team of Park Ji-Sungs to take to the Wembley pitch against Barcelona. After all, the South Korean also goes by the name of 'Three Lung Park' so ten more of him would effectively give the Red Devils 50% more energy and stamina than the Spanish giants man for man - enough and then some to disrupt their passing game.
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Every May, or so it seems in recent years in the build-up to the final, newspapers talk of a young skinny lad in Korea drinking frog juice in order to grow big enough to become a professional footballer. But, if the 30 year-old version can help do something about Barcelona on Saturday, champagne will be the beverage of choice. The 2008 vintage was bitter-sweet, 2009 had promise but quickly revealed a sour aftertaste, but 2011 could be third-time lucky. Park may have been the only Asian to appear in the biggest club game in the world but he has never played in a final that his team has won.
If Park ends up downing some bubbly then millions of fans on the world's largest continent will be downloading the images for the wallpaper and avatars that they have been waiting for. A picture of a sweaty Park holding aloft the European Cup would flicker on computer screens in headquarters of Samsung, LG, Hyundai and any other Korean conglomerate you care to mention for quite some time. Around dawn on Sunday in his corner of East Asia, the Land of the Morning Calm could be anything but.
However, unlike the player's nickname, the nation's moniker is a misnomer. There is little serenity in the high-tech, high-wired and high-speed, crowded peninsula. An Australian player in the K-League recently commented that the traffic around the capital at midnight is comparable to Sydney's at midday. The legions of fans had a rude awakening three years ago as it became clear that not only was Park, who had played all 360 minutes in the quarter and semi-finals, not starting against Chelsea, he wasn't even on the bench. Pictures of the midfielder celebrating in a rain-splattered beige suit didn't quite cut it.
Paul Scholes took time out of his celebrations to sympathise. Prior to the game, Ferguson had let it be known that the Englishman, who missed the 1999 triumph through suspension, could count on a place in Moscow. So the Scot, who said that leaving out Park was the hardest decision he ever had to make, was not about to do the same to his Asian star in Rome a year later. That really could have seen a fair amount of those reported 1.2 million Manchester United credit cards in Korea ending up more mangled than the United defence after Barcelona had finished. Park played but there was still no pose with Old Big Ears.
It could all come to pass at Wembley. Anything seems possible for the player at the moment. Perhaps there is something to be said for mid-winter Mid-Eastern sunshine and then a couple of months on the sidelines with a niggly knee knock. Park returned to action at the start of April after recovering from his Asian Cup injury to become the proverbial new signing in a title run-in. He hasn't looked back since with a series of big game performances that mean he is in danger of becoming one of United's big names. He is in the form of his life.
The two Old Trafford clashes with Chelsea spring to mind. In the Champions League quarter-final second leg, Park scored sixty seconds after Didier Drogba to nip any comeback in the bud and to send his team into the last four. That grabbed the headlines but it was his performance in the centre of midfield against the Londoners in the league a few weeks later that captured the imagination. Park was everywhere - breaking up attacks, winning the ball, getting forward and creating chances. It was as good a midfield display that you will see this season.
''I'll have to perform as well as I did in that game and improve in the final as well,'' Park said this week. ''I guess that was as good as I have played, especially in the first half that was a good moment for me. Hopefully I can play like that on Saturday, not for me. but for the team.''
It would be big news, and not just in Korea, if his name is not on the teamsheet on Saturday though there is little chance of that. Park is expected to play and expected to do so on the left to nullify the forward runs of Dani Alves, help out wherever necessary and get forward quickly. He is in good goalscoring form with eight goals this season - a best ever haul in England and an impressive one considering the months he missed.
''My position is that I have to attack as well, not only run a lot but when I get chances I should finish,'' said Park, who lifted a fourth Premier League title on Sunday after opening the scoring against Blackpool. ''I try to do my best at that as well. My first priority is to win the game and that means I have to score, assist and do everything I can for us to win the game.''
It would be an historic moment in Asian football history, admittedly too much so. Asian fans and media get incredibly excited when one of their own shines on the big stage. Iranian fans dared to dream in 1999 in Barcelona but Ali Daei stayed on the Bayern bench. What has happened in Korea for the past few years with Park was repeated in Japan last month as Atsuto Uchida reached the semi-final with Schalke.
It won't always be this way. Over the next few years, it is going to become so commonplace to an extent that it will barely warrant a mention. And that is the way it should be, although breaking that barrier is going to be a big deal.
Ultimately, it deserves to smashed by Park and not just because of past finals. He has been Asia's ace ambassador on the world stage for almost a decade now. It is something of a scandal that he has still to be officially honoured by the Asian Football Confederation for his services to the continent. But that doesn't matter now. The biggest prize in club football is waiting, as is the biggest continent to see if one of its favourite sons can earn a permanent place in song and screensavers.