Park’s focus on future in Korea, eye on youth development
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Park Ji-sung has achieved plenty of personal accolades, winning English Premier League and UEFA Champions League medals with Manchester United, and appearing at three World Cups.
What he’s embarking on next, however, is what he considers his biggest challenge yet: helping to take South Korea to the highest levels of world soccer.
It was once expected that Park would swap his boots for a seat on the coaching bench after playing under world-famous figures such as Guus Hiddink at the 2002 World Cup — when South Korea made a remarkable run to the semifinals — or his time in England with Sir Alex Ferguson.
What he learned from those men, though, have taken him on a different path.
“I watched Hiddink and Ferguson at close quarters, and realized that I am not a coach,” Park said. “To become a good coach, it is important to be equipped with tactics and strategy. But first of all, you need to have strong leadership. In terms of that, I cannot be exactly the same as Hiddink or Ferguson.”
Instead of taking on the head coach’s role, Park has joined the Korea Football Association to take charge of the country’s youth development. South Korea has enjoyed more success at the World Cup than any other Asian nation and its club have won the most continental club titles, but there are concerns for the future.
“The reason that Korea has been a strong nation in Asia was because we produced strong young players,” Park said. “These days people can’t see this, and so there is a feeling of crisis.”
There has been growing debate within Korean soccer circles on how to improve youth development.
Cha Bum-keun, South Korea’s most successful export to Europe before Park when played in the Bundesliga from 1979 to 1988 — winning UEFA Cups with Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt — is among those voicing an opinion.
Cha, who has coached the national team, believes South Korea should follow the model that took Germany to the 2014 World Cup title.
“South Koreans don’t give up easily and have the strength to fight until the end,” he said. “They are also similar to Germans’ fighting spirit, and that’s why I believe German football is suitable for us.”
There may be stronger influences than Germany. Before heading to Manchester United, Park played in Japan and the Netherlands and officials at the KFA expect the former international midfielder to draw on his experience in those two countries, both of which have established notable youth development programs.
In September, former KFA officials, including president Cho Chung-yon, were charged by police with misappropriating funds in 2011 and 2012.
So for South Korea, the new football focus is not just about lifting standards on the field. The arrival of Park at the KFA, as well as 2002 World Cup captain Hong Myong-bo, the newly-appointed General Secretary, is part of an effort to increase the organization’s transparency and improve its reputation.
“The reshuffle shows the KFA’s will to find talented people with expertise in football,” the KFA, desperate to signal a turning point, said in a statement.
Even the one piece of genuine good news, September’s qualification for a ninth successive World Cup, was a struggle with just four out of 10 games won in the last round.
Technical director and KFA vice-president Kim Ho-gon quit earlier this month, less than five months after Uli Stielike was fired as head coach.
“I tried my best for football development and the national team’s achievement, but many things were not satisfactory because of my lack of ability,” Kim said in a statement on his departure.
While the domestic focus for now will be on how South Korea prepares a squad for next year’s World Cup in Russia, Park will be getting to work on developing the talent that could help them compete for the sport’s marquee prize for many years to come.