Kuala Lumpur: Park Ji-sung’s place in the pantheon of Asian football is unquestioned but, while the midfielder made his name at the FIFA World Cup and winning titles in Europe, it was with Kyoto Purple Sanga that he took his first steps as a professional.
German coach Gert Engels handed Park his debut with the J.League club and tells the-AFC.com about the formative years of one of Asia’s greatest ever players.
When Gert Engels talks about Park Ji-sung, the same characteristic is mentioned time and again: stability. From the moment he first set eyes on footage of Park playing for Myongji University, it was the youngster’s unerring approach that stood out for the former Yokohama Flugels and Kyoto Purple Sanga coach.
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“What I found really good was he was very young but he was a very stable player,” says Engels of a player who would go on to reach the highest levels of the game.
“Of course there were goals and other things, but when you watched the video you didn’t see any mistakes.
“He was very stable. Always moving, almost no mistakes. That was Park Ji-sung in his young days. He didn’t play like a young player, with ups and downs. That was quite surprising for a player at his age."
“That was special because you have a lot of young players where you can see the talent, but in the case of Park Ji-sung he never went down lower than 85 or 90 percent. He was really stable. That was in training and in games.
“Every day his working attitude was very stable and his character was very stable and his performance was very stable. That was one of the main attributes and characteristics of him.”
There are few better judges of talent in Asia than Engels, a coach who led the now defunct Yokohama Flugels to the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day in 1999. He also served as assistant to Guido Buchwald when Urawa Red Diamonds won the J.League title in 2006 and to Holger Osieck the following season as Reds claimed their first AFC Champions League crown.
As a result, Engels has worked with some of the continent’s best players, from 2002 World Cup goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki (pictured below, left) through to Japan’s AFC Asian Cup-winning captain Makoto Hasebe (pictured below, right). Of all his former charges, though, it is Park who has scaled the highest peaks of the game.
Park would go on to help Korea Republic to the last four of the 2002 FIFA World Cup before winning multiple titles with PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United, but it was under Engels that the midfielder made his first strides in the professional game as a 19-year-old.
Engels was already at Kyoto as assistant to Shu Kamo when, on May 15, 2000 Park signed his first professional contract. Three weeks later, the German was in charge, promoted to head coach after Kamo had been removed following a poor showing in the first stage of the J.League season.
By June 24 Engels was giving Park his debut in Kyoto’s opening game of the second stage of the J.League’s first division campaign, a 3-2 win over JEF United Ichihara (now JEF United Chiba) in which the youngster played all 90 minutes.
“Park Ji-sung had a directness to his game, to move forward and to play simply,” says Engels. “He made no unforced errors and always had a great attitude. I liked that. He was a stable factor in our group even though he was a young player.”
Park quickly established himself as a regular, featuring in 13 of the 15 games in the second half of the season, although he was unable to save the club from relegation to Japan’s second division.
However, with a six-month bedding in period behind him, Park became a key member of the Kyoto squad as Engels sought to restore the club to the top flight at the first attempt.
“We trusted him,” says Engels. “There were no rivals in his position and he had a chance to develop. It was a good decision by him too to stay when we were in the second division because he had about 40 games for his development.
“These first 13 games in J1 and the 40 games - under a slight pressure situation because it was a must go back to J1 - for his development were very important.”
Moving to Japan gave Park a taste of what was to come later in his career when he made his successful shift to Europe. Playing in a foreign league amid a new culture and learning a new language were challenges Park would adapt to throughout his career.
“He was very quiet,” says Engels. “On the pitch and off the pitch also. He was not aggressive, he played with 100 percent and also physically 100 percent. He was not somebody who talked much on the pitch and it was difficult because of the language.
“But he had good contact with the team and he is still in contact with players in the team. They were friends for a long time. And if his mother came he was always happy. We always joked that if his mother came he gained one or two kilos because she always cooked for him and took care of him.
“Of course it’s not easy when you’re young, but he was very committed to football. He was very focused and that helped him very much. He concentrated on his football. He adapted well and he still communicates with the players today in Japanese.”
With their position in the first division reclaimed as Kyoto won the second division in 2001, the following year was to prove pivotal for Park. Under Gus Hiddink, Park – now aged 21 years old – was becoming one of emerging talents in the Korea Republic national team that was co-hosting the FIFA World Cup finals in the summer along with Japan.
His importance to both club and country was becoming ever more apparent, and yet – much to Engels’ regret – Kyoto made a misstep that was to prove costly.
Having impressed in his first 18 months with the club, and having remained loyal despite relegation the previous year, Park’s request for an improved contract was turned down by Kyoto’s management. It is a decision that continues to bewilder Engels.
“That was really a shame,” says the German. “The coaching staff told the management all the time we need to contract him and they talked to him. I don't know the figures but he asked for more money. This was before the 2002 World Cup.
“He asked for more money, but everybody from the coaching staff could see that we should pay him more. Everybody had the opinion to try to keep him for two years longer. They didn’t want to give him the money and they waited until after the World Cup and they lost him for zero. It was a huge mistake."
“Even if you don’t know the player, you will know what will happen with a young player like him, playing in the first division in Japan and a regular in his national team and playing at the World Cup and not too expensive. Even if you don’t know the player and you’re a businessman and you’re buying shares for example, you would buy shares in Park Ji-sung!
“I still don’t understand why they didn’t contract him. We weren’t talking about keeping him, the contract would have been a business contract to still sell him. At this age you could be quite sure he would leave us after the J.League season.”
Despite the wrangle, Park’s influence – and reputation - continued to grow. By the time he returned from a summer at the FIFA World Cup that saw him star in a Korean side that reached the semi-finals, the world had been alerted to the midfielder’s qualities.
“You could see a certain pride in his eyes coming back from the World Cup,” says Engels. “But it didn’t make him different in a negative way. He continued as before. After the World Cup you have problems with injuries but he recovered very soon and we gave him all the time and training and always communicating.”
It came as little surprise that Park was being courted by Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, who had appointed Hiddink as head coach in the aftermath of the World Cup. Few knew the youngster and the talent he possessed better than his former national team boss.
But with the switch – on a free transfer due to Kyoto’s failure to tie Park down to a new contract - not due to be completed until early January after the Eredivisie returned from its winter break, Park continued to perform for Kyoto. Injuries curtailed his involvement in the league but, as Kyoto progressed to a meeting with Kashima Antlers in the final of the Emperor’s Cup on New Year’s Day, his importance to the team only grew.
“By this time he was sure he was going to PSV, but we won the Emperor’s Cup,” says Engels. “He was injured for the last six weeks or even two months. He had Achilles problems, but what he did was he played the quarter-final, the semi-final and the final with this injury even knowing that the Dutch season started on January 5 or 6.
“Tell me how many from 100 players who are going from Japan to a big chance in Europe are doing everything for their team in their last games? He insisted on playing. That was very special and it tells a lot.
“It’s not just about what you do on the pitch, it’s also about your character and he helped the team until the last minute and it was really because of him as a player that we won the Emperor’s Cup.”
That 2-1 Emperor’s Cup win over Kashima was the first trophy of an illustrious club career for Park. He would go on to add a pair of Eredivisie titles to his resume with PSV before joining Manchester United in July 2005, where he would become a key member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad.
While at Old Trafford, Park won the UEFA Champions League in 2008 as well as four English Premier League titles, the FIFA Club World Cup and the League Cup, a haul that marks him out as one of the most successful Asian players of all time.
“I wouldn’t say that when he came: Here is a player who will be a key player at Manchester United, or something like this,” says Engels. “But what I said was he was one of the players who would not be highlighted, but he is one that coaches like.
“The mass media didn’t notice him so much. In Germany we say of players like this that you notice him when he is not on the pitch. There are players who get attention when they are there because they’re doing great things, but he’s a player who will get your attention when he’s not there, and that’s a huge compliment. It’s a good thing you can say about him.
“Coaches love these players. You can give him some tasks and he will do them. He worked hard and didn’t complain. Those last games in the Emperor’s Cup showed that.”
Photos: AFP, AFC
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