Kuala Lumpur: When Korea Republic’s Park Ji-sung arrived at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Finals he was already a well-established and highly regarded member of the Taeguk Warriors squad.
Indeed, with the Koreans sharing the tournament’s hosting duties alongside regional rivals Japan, much was expected of both Park and the rest of Guus Hiddink’s squad ahead of their campaign against the world’s elite. Neither were to disappoint.
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As the world watched on, Korea Republic gallantly battled their way through to the semi-finals and the irrepressible Park shone brighter than most – not least because of the midfielder’s magnificent winning goal in his country’s final group stage game against Portugal.
In the wake of a fine 2-0 win over Poland and Ahn Jung-hwan’s headed equaliser in a 1-1 draw against the United States of America, Korea Republic prepared to face the likes of Luis Figo, Vitor Baia and Fernando Couto knowing that a draw would be enough to see them qualify for the Round of 16 as Group D winners.
Roared on by the vast majority of the 50,239 spectators assembled at the Incheon World Cup Stadium, Park and his teammates were quickly into their stride with Lee Young-pyo firing over the bar after only four minutes and Anderlecht forward Seol Ki-hyeon repeatedly creating havoc down the left wing.
Bamboozled and thrown off their stride, Portugal’s cause was dealt a major blow shortly before the half-hour mark when Joao Pinto was shown a straight red card by Argentine referee Angel Sanchez following a crude challenge on the industrious Park.
Despite being a man down, Portugal could – and very possibly should – have taken the lead before half-time when, after Seol had a 30th minute effort ruled out for offside, Pauleta escaped his marker but failed to find the net from the edge of the penalty area.
In truth, the balance of play changed little in the second period. Seol and Yoo Sang-chul both directed headers narrowly wide of the post while Kim Nam-il sent a terrific drive across the face of goal.
Portugal threatened briefly when goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae reacted well to keep out a Pauleta header, but their hopes of getting anything from the game suffered yet another major setback when Beto was dismissed on 65 minutes for clattering into Lee Young-pyo.
Five minutes later, it was time for Park’s magical moment, a goal that – despite the intervening years – remains one of the finest to have ever graced a FIFA World Cup Finals stage.
Receiving the ball from a Lee Young-pyo cross, Park, having been afforded a degree of time and space at the Portuguese far post, shaped to shoot with his right foot but saw his path to goal blocked by Sergio Conceicao.
In a flash, Park skilfully manoeuvred the ball to his left and beyond the scrambling Conceicao before unleashing a shot from six yards that Portugal custodian Baia failed to keep out. 1-0 to Korea Republic courtesy of a slice of inspiration from the then Kyoto Purple Sanga favourite.
“The moment I got the ball I thought I would shoot with my right foot after controlling it on my chest,” Park would subsequently tell FIFA’s official website.
“Well that was the plan, but the defender was in the way and if I took a shot with my right foot the ball would have been blocked by him. I was actually wondering what it would feel like to score at a World Cup and it was more exciting than I had expected.
“The Korea Republic national team had never won at a World Cup, but in 2002 not only did we win games we got great results in front of our own fans. It was the most meaningful moment in my life as a footballer.”
In a frantic finish to the encounter, Figo (pictured above, left) threatened with a free-kick and Conceicao struck an upright and was then denied by the experienced Lee Woon-jae.
It mattered little in the end however, as Park’s magical strike ultimately helped Korea Republic advance into the knockout phase where they would register historic victories over Italy and Spain before succumbing to Germany in the last four.
The rest, as they say, is history.
After the World Cup, Park went on to play for – among others – PSV Eindhoven in Holland and English heavyweights Manchester United, progressively testing environments where the livewire midfielder continued to scale the heights following his sublime effort in Incheon.
Despite announcing his retirement from football in 2014, Park’s goal against Portugal remains as a constant reminder of his class, a reminder of the day when Park stood tall among the planet’s finest.
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