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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

J. WALKING

Park life: One-time 'Purple Prince' now a 'Red Devil'


Nishikyogoku, Kyoto, one week; Old Trafford, Manchester, the next.

Jeremy Walker

Well, not exactly, as there has been PSV Eindhoven in between these two extremes.

Nonetheless, it highlights the rapid rise of South Korean World Cup ace Park Ji Sung.

The 24-year-old midfielder began his career with little fanfare at Kyoto Purple Sanga in June 2000, and left Japan for Eindhoven in January 2003 only slightly more well-known and appreciated.

In between those two dates there had been the small matter of the 2002 World Cup, in which Park excelled on the right side of attack in Korea's dynamic 3-4-3 formation.

He played in all seven games, scored that fantastic goal to beat Portugal 1-0, and was one of Korea's unsung heroes.

Now glory beckons, as Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has just spent £4 million to take him from PSV to Old Trafford.

"I'm very happy for him. No one deserves it more," says Gert Engels, the former Purple Sanga manager who is now assistant coach at Urawa Reds.

"Park was very under-estimated as a player here in Japan, and then he went on to do amazing things at the World Cup.

"He proved his value in the Champions League with PSV Eindhoven last season, especially against Milan in the semifinals.

"Moving to a club as big as Manchester United is the next logical step in his development. It's his next challenge, and I am sure he can handle it. After all, didn't PSV go further than Manchester United in the Champions League last season?"

Park does not have the movie star looks of Ahn Jung Hwan or the elegance of the now retired Hong Myung Bo, but for Engels he has matured into the complete player.

"I first saw him on video when he was 18 or 19, playing for the Korean Under-20s or the Olympic team," recalls Engels.

"What impressed me the most was that he was so cool and stable. Young players go up and down with their form, but Park made no mistakes at all. That's surprising for someone of his age.

"He could play in a lot of different positions, too. Sometimes on the left, sometimes in defensive midfield. He didn't score many goals or have many assists, but he was always very disciplined and took no risks.

"He was a coach's dream . . . a player who does not make mistakes, who holds his position on the pitch and who never has a bad game."

Park went on to play 76 J. League games for Purple Sanga, scoring 11 goals, and 38 of those appearances were in Kyoto's J2 championship-winning year of 2001.

Ironically, Engels feels that Park's time in the second division made a major contribution to where he is now.

"He played a lot of competitive games that season and it was a big advantage for him.

"He gained a lot of match experience, and developed day by day into a very dynamic player who was very hard to stop. Just look at the statistics from the World Cup and you will see this."

Those stats show that Park was fouled 24 times during Korea's seven matches, while committing only six himself and making 31 tackles.

Looking back on Park's career with Kyoto, Engels adds: "We were not a very strong team at the time, but he played almost every game.

"Some players need a rival to give them competition, but Park didn't because he was so ambitious. He just played at a constant, stable level. Even though he didn't do anything spectacular, no one would ever say, 'Park was not so good today.' "

Park learned Japanese quickly and still keeps in touch with some of his former Kyoto teammates. He was quiet, but popular and always part of the group.

As for Engels, he will never forget Park's attitude toward the end of his Kyoto career.

"He had an Achilles tendon injury and had already agreed to sign for PSV, but we were still in the Emperor's Cup at the end of the 2002 season," says the German coach.

"I'm sure many players would not have played because if they had made the injury more serious the transfer would have been in jeopardy.

"But Park played in those last three games and we won the Emperor's Cup. I will always appreciate what he did for the team."

Give a bunch of Brazilians a few mini-sized balls, and an audience of 12,000, and they just can't help themselves.

And that's just the girls.

No, we're not talking soccer here, but volleyball.

The women's World Grand Prix stopped off in Tokyo on the weekend and there was a treat in store for the full house at Yoyogi No. 1 Gym before the big match against Japan on Sunday night.

Usually, when the players are introduced to the fans, they run out into the arena with a mini-volleyball and throw it into the screaming crowd. Great PR for all concerned.

But when the Brazilians were announced, they ran out one by one and, being Brazilian, kicked their baby volleyballs high into the rafters, to gasps from the audience.

Some players volleyed it straight out of their hands, others let it bounce once before letting fly, and one even juggled it on her thighs before striking it with the outside of her right foot into the top corner.

"They like soccer very much," said head coach Jose Guimaraes.

"Sometimes we play soccer in the warmup, because it's important to change the model of training and not only talk about volleyball. In fact we have three very good soccer players.

"In the end they decided they would kick the balls into the crowd, not throw them."

And the score?

It was another nail biter. This time Brazil won 3-2 . . . and not even Zico could complain about an offside call.

Player of the Week: Argentina's Javier Zanetti.

The Inter Milan stalwart celebrated his 100th cap in the Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico, and it's unlikely that any of his performances have dipped below a 7 out of 10. Surely the world's greatest all-around player.

Quote of the Week: "When I wore the Manchester kit I didn't feel it was real. But when I went to United's ground I felt very proud that I will be playing for such a top club. (But) The joy I felt during the last World Cup finals could not be matched by anything else."

-- South Korea's Park Ji Sung, on his move to Old Trafford.



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