Training makes the difference to Park Ji-sung“People say that I inherited what they call ‘Soccer DNA.’ I say that my soccer talent developed after I was born. Dribbling. Passing. Lifting. Heading. While my friends thought these basic skills boring and unnecessary, I dedicated myself to perfecting each and every aspect of my game. It was a constant one-on-one battle against myself. How many times could I keep the ball in the air while I walked? How fast could I run 100 meters while dribbling the ball? How many times could I head the ball inside the house? Day after day, personal battle after battle, I pushed myself to challenge my limits like never before ― and I improved.”
These are the words of Park Ji-sung of the Dutch team PSV Eindhoven. Last month, Park scored against the world-class defense of AC Milan in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions’ League, becoming the first Korean soccer player to do so at such a level. In addition, his powerful presence in the midfield helped the national team qualify for its sixth consecutive appearance in the World Cup.
And one of Europe’s most respected teams, England’s Manchester United, is openly scouting Park, while Guus Hiddink, the coach of PSV, does not hide his dismay at the possibility of parting with the young soccer phenomenon, if Park chooses to leave for the Red Devils.
Park’s birthplace, the city of Suwon, has named one of its roads after its native soccer hero. Seven, the number on Park’s jersey, has become the favorite of soccer fans across South Korea.
It has been difficult to secure an interview with the soccer superstar since he has attracted the attention of newspapers across the globe. Sohn Hak-kyu, the governor of Gyeonggi province, had a brief talk with Park during his flight back from the World Cup finals in Kuwait.
“Training is the secret to strong physical conditioning,” said Park. People gaze in wonder whenever he dashes energetically from one side of the field to the other, racing past his fatigued opponents. Park relentlessly follows the ball wherever it may be, earning the nickname “Oxygen Tank” by his teammates at PSV. “Park Ji-sung has the endurance of a marathon runner,” Choi Ju-young, the physician for the Korean national youth team, said. Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Park was ranked second in a cross-country fitness competition, held at the national training camp of Korea, among Olympic athletes representing the country.
How did he achieve such top-notch physical fitness? “There is nothing special to it,” Park responded. “I do everything everyone else does. But to overcome the disadvantages of my smaller size, I had to work much harder than others did ― and here I am.” Park modestly brushes aside the fact that he has flat feet, a tremendous drawback to any athlete: “We already talked about the same issue in the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. There is no need to bring it up again,” Park said.
Park does not eat anything particularly good for his health ― indeed, he does not each much at all. His father, Park Seong-jung, 49, said, “He has had bo-yak, an Eastern health medicine, only once in the last two years. I am not sure if it helps his athletic performance at all.”
“I have nothing but thanks for all my mentors,” noted Park. He loved to play soccer when he was young, but his elementary school did not have a team. Fortunately for Park and his future fans, Suwon Saeru Elementary School established a soccer team when he was in the fourth grade.
Park was a head shorter than his teammates, but excelled when it came to skill. In the sixth grade, Park became the sixth recipient of the prestigious “Cha Bum Keun” Award, presented to the best soccer player at the elementary school level. Lee Dong-guk, Park’s current teammate on the national youth team, was the fifth recipient, and Choi Tae-wook, a Korean soccer player in Japan, was the seventh.
When Park entered Suwon Technical High School, he was still shorter than everyone else. “Until his sophomore year at high school, I kept Park from lifting weights because I thought early intensive physical training would impede his growth. Instead, we focused on honing his skills,” Lee Jong-hak, Park’s high school coach, said.
As a freshman at Myongji University, Park played with the Korean national team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and slowly gained recognition for his boundless energy. “Everyone questioned why such a skinny kid with no specialty would be on the national team. Absorbing everything we taught him, Park improved at a tremendous rate and earned respect at the international level. After the Olympics, everyone expected him to reach even greater heights,” Huh Jeong-moo, the head coach of the national team for 2000 Sydney Olympics, said.
In 2001, Park met the Dutch coach Guus Hiddink while playing on the 2002 World Cup national team. This proved to be the turning point in his career, as he later developed into an international star under the coach while playing for PSV Eindhoven. “Throughout my life, I thank my mentors who nurtured my growth and helped me become the player that I am today. I appreciated the fact that Coach Hiddink treated everyone equally.”
Park has a quiet, reserved personality ― and he knows it. “I find that I do not laugh easily. I only laugh when I am surrounded by close friends. But if that’s not the case...” Park trails back into his familiar reticence. His closest friend on the national team, Chung Kyung-ho, who plays for Gwangju, fills in for his reticent teammate: “Ji-sung does not make friends easily. Sometimes I stand next to him, only to cringe as he responds brusquely to people who approach him. But inside, his personality is completely different ― he loves to spend time with friends and talks openly about personal matters.”
Outside of training, Park spends his time alone, mostly reading books or watching soccer games on television. And even while he watches soccer, he concentrates his attention exclusively on potential moves that he might apply. He pursues no other interests, and has no hobbies to occupy his time. He sacrifices everything else in his life to dedicate every waking moment to the pursuit of perfection.
He has no plans for marriage, yet. “I hope to find a wife who understands the life of a soccer player, and stands by me in whatever sacrifices I make in order to improve as a player.”
Because his father handles all his financial matters, Park does not know how much money he has. His parents give him an allowance for anything that he may need, but he says that he does not need all that much.
While waiting for his plane in Dubai, Park strolled around the duty-free shop looking over different sunglasses and electronic products. But in the end, he only bought a bottle of fine foreign liquor for his father.
Park plans to stay in Seoul while he finalizes his future plans. While attending various events and modeling for advertisements, Park intends to continue his personal training regimen in order to become an even brighter star in Europe.
by Jeong Young-jae