South Korean star Park Ji-Sung has retired from football after a long struggle with knee injuries, according to the Mirror. His decision brings to an end a glittering career for his country and at club level, most notably with Manchester United.
Despite all his contributions to one of the most fruitful periods in Man Utd's history, the most successful Asian player in football history was largely underrated and underappreciated by fans.
During his time at Old Trafford, United won four league titles, a Champions League trophy, three League Cups and a FIFA Club World Cup. The midfielder may not have set the world alight like Cristiano Ronaldo, but Park was a vital member of the squad when there were semi-finals to be played and title races to be won.
His manager at Man Utd, Sir Alex Ferguson was, of course, well aware of Park's importance in the big games. When the South Korean visited Old Trafford with his new club QPR in 2012, Fergie used the opportunity to pay tribute to his former player via manutd.com:
The great thing about Ji-sung Park is he’s one of the best professionals we’ve had here.
He was truly fantastic, and particularly in big games. I loved playing him in the big games. His record against Arsenal, for instance, was fantastic.
His most important performance against Arsenal came in the Champions League semi-final of 2009. During the post-match reaction you would hardly have known how big a role Park played in the game. He was overshadowed by Ronaldo.
Park did open the scoring early on, though, and was part of the nine-second counterattack that resulted in Ronaldo scoring the third.
That performance earned him a spot in the Champions League final in Rome vs. Barcelona, unlike the previous year when Park was dropped for the 2008 final.
The 33-year-old never failed to make an impression on professionals either. Defender Rio Ferdinand praised his team-mate during the 2008/2009 season, telling The Guardian that Park was "a true players' player":
Up there with best in the world for movement, and so intelligent and direct with runs off the ball. His work-rate is unreal, he adds a dimension no other player brings to the team. He's underrated, a real top player.
Park was often referred to as a "Duracell Bunny" because of his seemingly endless gas tank. What was rarely appreciated was his movement and intelligence.
On several occasions, Park was tasked with shadowing Andrea Pirlo when the Italian played for AC Milan. It takes more than infinite reserves in energy to pull off such a job, and in his recently published book Pirlo touched upon his numerous encounters with the South Korean (h/t The Independent):
On one of the many occasions when our paths crossed during my time at Milan, he (Ferguson) unleashed Park Ji-sung to shadow me. The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron.
Sadly, it was fans who did not fully appreciate Park and his many attributes. In his final couple of seasons at Old Trafford, the midfielder became a scapegoat. When things went wrong, it was his fault. Yes, as Park aged he made more mistakes, but there many instances when the criticism was undeserved. He was just easy to blame.
His career at Man Utd fizzled out due to injury and little game time. It is a shame a player like Park, who was dedicated and a model professional—and who remained so after being shockingly left out of the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow—was never really appreciated.
If you look at Man Utd's disastrous league campaign and the current state of the midfield, a Park Ji-Sung would have been quite useful.