SEOUL (Reuters) - For a boy who used to drink frog juice to help him grow, Park Ji-sung has come a long way.
The shaggy-haired South Korean, once judged too frail to make the grade at college level, has muscled his way into the mix at Manchester United and punches above his weight in England’s ultra-competitive Premier League.
While his father was so worried about his lack of size he made him drink boiled frog extract, Park’s high school coach was never in doubt the scrawny youngster had the desire and attitude to make an impact at the highest level.
Lee Hak-jong, who still coaches at Suwon Technical High School on the outskirts of Seoul, remembers Park as a quiet boy with outstanding work ethic and discipline.
“I didn’t push Park Ji-sung too hard with the tough, physical exercises because I was worried if he wasted too much physical energy he wouldn’t grow,” Lee told Reuters.
“He wasn’t big enough to compete with the other players but had tremendous endurance. So I let him learn more about the basic skills, controlling the ball etc.”
Park, who now has a street named after him in Suwon, was not the most skilful player in the side, but his was the first name down on Lee’s team sheet thanks to his dynamism and drive.
Those same qualities have earned him nicknames such as “The Oxygen Tank” and “Three-Lunged Park” in Korea and Europe.
Despite guiding the team to their first national games victory in 1998, there were few university coaches who shared Lee’s faith in Park. Failure to get into college would undoubtedly have ended any hopes for a soccer career.
“There few colleges showing interest in Park because he was still small and looked weaker than the others,” said Lee.
“But we didn’t give up and after a lot of effort he was lucky enough to get into Myongji University.”
Given the lack of love in Korea, it was no surprise Park signed his first professional contract with a Japanese club, Kyoto Purple Sanga, in 2000. In doing so, the midfielder became the first Korean to appear in the J-League without first having played club soccer in Korea.
Park guided Kyoto to the J-League’s second division title in 2001 and the Emperor’s Cup in 2002, but it was on the international stage his performances would shine brightest.
Park flourished under the guidance of Guus Hiddink, the Dutch master who led Korea to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals on home soil. The Korean followed him to PSV Eindhoven after the World Cup and in his book credits Hiddink with transforming his career.
“If it was not for coach Hiddink I would not be where I am now,” he wrote in his autobiography ‘Neverending Challenge’.
“I owe him everything and I will never be able to repay it in my lifetime.”
After initially struggling to settle in Dutch soccer, Park won over his PSV team mates and supporters with his bottomless reserves of energy and selfless playing style.
His performances, particularly in the Champions League, caught the eye of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, and in 2005 the club paid a reported $4 million to sign the Korean.
Park has had to bide his time and battle with some of the biggest names in world soccer for a spot in the United side, but has earned the respect of his team mates and played enough games to be considered a valuable member of the squad.
The 27-year-old had a rollercoaster 2007-08 season, missing the first half through injury before returning to help United win the English Premier League title.
He looked certain to become the first Asian to play in the Champions League final after impressive performances against AS Roma and Barcelona in the quarter and semi-finals but was completely dropped for that clash with Chelsea in Moscow.
In typically modest fashion, Park said he harbored no hard feelings towards Ferguson.
“I definitely understand the coach had to make a decision that he thought was strategically for the best,” said Park after he returned to Korea.
“The team won so I am happy. Personally, it is frustrating not to play in such a big game but there will be other opportunities.”
Additional reporting by Park Ju-min; Editing by Ed Osmond