Michael Church in South Africa

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 June, 2010, 12:00am

Park Ji-sung's status as the leader of Asia's current crop of football talent broaches little argument as the dynamic South Korean midfielder prepares for what will be his third - and possibly last - World Cup appearance.

He goes into the tournament with a resume that underlines his position as the most decorated of players from the continent, with a European Cup to his name from 2008 and three consecutive Premier League winners' medals collected with Manchester United, as well as two Dutch titles with PSV Eindhoven.

At the age of just 29, there is little Park hasn't seen or done on the football field; he was a key member - even though he was just 21 - of Guus Hiddink's famous side who remarkably reached the 2002 World Cup semi-finals.

Park has played professionally in Japan, the Netherlands and England and continues to comfortably conduct interviews in the languages of all three of his adopted lands. On and off the field, he is the perfect ambassador for the Asian game.

And yet, despite his long list of honours, he has still to receive the adulation - officially at least - of his continental peers as the Asian Football Confederation continues to ignore his achievements.

There has rarely been a more deserving winner of Asia's Player of the Year award, but time and again Park has been given the cold shoulder in favour of lesser, more fleeting talents.

As he moves towards his 30th birthday, time is running out for that recognition to be heaped on Park in the way it was on Hidetoshi Nakata.

The Japanese star was lauded throughout his own stellar career during which he was twice named Asian Player of the Year in addition to winning the Serie A crown with AS Roma. Park's achievements, in contrast, put those of Nakata in the shade.

The decision-makers within the continental game, though, may only have a limited amount of time to hail Park's heroics.

While he has no intention to retire - shunning the move Nakata made, at the same age, following Japan's elimination from the last World Cup - Park realises his international future is finite and believes South Africa could be his last appearance on the global stage.

'It might happen, because in 2014 I'll be 33 or 34.

'I'll try to do my best to keep my place in the national team, but if we want it to be stronger than this team we have to hope that the younger players grow up quickly and get stronger.'

Park's exclusion from future Korean sides would be music to the ears of Sir Alex Ferguson, his manager at Old Trafford for the last five years, who has seen a number of his senior players retire from the international scene to prolong their club careers.

However, Park is looking no further ahead than the next month, when the Koreans will try to qualify for the second round of the World Cup for the first time on foreign soil.

Despite the heroics at home in 2002, when Korea defeated both Italy and Spain on the way to the semi-finals, the nation have only ever won one game at a World Cup outside Korea - against Togo in Germany four years ago.

Huh Jung-moo and his team have set their sights on a place in the second round as they attempt to emerge from a first-round group that features Argentina, Nigeria and Greece. With Diego Maradona's side the favourites to win the group, the remaining trio will battle it out for the second berth in the last 16.

It says much of Korea's improvement in recent years that, unlike the other Asian qualifiers for South Africa, their challenge is not being dismissed out of hand thanks to the team's mixture of quality, experience and youth.

But as Park points out, much needs to be done for teams from the continent to be in a position to launch a more concerted challenge at future World Cups.

'Asian teams have to get through the group stage with more than one team, we have to get close to being world class and hopefully it won't just be Korea but Japan or Australia can make it through to the second round,' he says.

'There aren't many players playing in Europe so they need experience playing against European or South American teams. If they play in Asia they don't have experience of playing against world-class players and that's why they have to come over to Europe.

'If you play against those kind of teams you feel more confident to play and you can show your talent or your ability on the pitch and that's important.'

As Park has shown time and again, the experience of playing on the biggest of stages week in, week out has turned him into a player of whom all of Asia can be proud.