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South Korea's Park an unsung hero for Manchester United

Park Ji-Sung scores against New England

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

The thing about all-star teams is that, by definition, they’re made up of stars. These are guys who have skills and abilities that stand out, that bring you out of your seat to scream and cheer. They create spectacle, they win titles, they are the crowned kings of their respective teams.

But an all-star team isn’t really a team. No manager in his right mind ever went after 11 stars that shine equally bright, because in our game, the best teams are greater than the sum of their parts.

Case in point: Uruguay, the new-crowned kings of South America.

Another case in point: Manchester United.

The world’s most famous soccer team is often referred to as an “all-star collection of talent,” and the names of their players shine brightly on any marquee. But for every Rooney, there’s a Fletcher. For every Giggs, a Carrick. For every Nani, a Park Ji-Sung.

The South Korean midfielder won’t ever have any poems written about him, and his highlight reel won’t be endless. But in his six years with the Red Devils, he’s been part of a team that has won everything there is to win, playing his role — be it on the wing, in central midfield, even occasionally up top — quietly filling gaps and doing the dirty work that needs to be done.

Park scores vs. Seattle
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Not exactly the kind of profile you’d label “all-star.” Surely one you’d label “winner.”

“My time here is good,” Park said last week after United’s 7-0 thrashing of Seattle. “It is where I want to be, where I know I can contribute and be part of a team.”

That attitude is why Park, who’s ignored so thoroughly in the mainstream press, is venerated by the Red Devils faithful. They call him “Three-Lung Park” and sing songs (most not printable here) in his honor.

And it’s not just the fans who appreciate the all-action, selfless play of the midfielder. Sir Alex Ferguson started Park in this past May’s UEFA Champions League final ahead of other, trendier picks. It was Park, after all, whose box-to-box, touchline-to-touchline coverage had so frustrated Barcelona — and Lionel Messi in particular — back in the 2008 semifinals. And it was Park again who gave United an insurmountable lead in the 2009 semifinals against Arsenal with an eighth-minute goal in the second leg of Man. United’s 4-1 win.

So far through Manchester United's tour of the states, Park has found his finishing form. He scored against both New England (pictured above) and Seattle.

“Always, I try on behalf of the team to win,” Park said. “Clearly, that sometimes includes goals and a lot of assists as well. So if I score a lot of goals, I’m happy because it means the team is doing well. But even if I’m not scoring goals, as long as the team wins, I will be happy.”

Ferguson’s decision to go with Park in the 2011 final didn’t work out — Barcelona fairly ran United off the pitch in a 3-1 win. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“It was very disappointing that we lost in the Champions League, every player had the same feeling after,” Park explained. “But, it’s football. You have to look forward to the future. We just try to work hard, to not think too much on that game from last season.”

While Park’s looking ahead, it’s probably worth it for American fans to look back on the man’s body of work. It was Park’s goal against Portugal in the third-and-final group-stage game that put the US through to the knock-out rounds of the 2002 World Cup. It was a goal that he didn’t have to score; a cynical, 0-0 draw would have sufficed to see Korea through atop the group.

When he was told he’s considered an American hero by many fans for that goal, he laughed.

“That is good. It is good to be remembered,” Park said, smiling. “And it is always good to win.”