Has there been a less heralded build-up to a new European season? The European championships and especially the Olympics have focused minds elsewhere. Even English fans seemed shocked on Sunday to find that the England’s traditional curtain-raiser the Community Shield, this year played out between Chelsea and Manchester City, was taking place.
It has been refreshing to see football take a back seat for once, but this Saturday the English Premier League season starts and then La Liga gets into gear and the week after it is the turn of the Bundesliga and Serie A. It’s time to take a deep breath after and dive into the water again.
For Asian players in Europe it has been an interesting summer with as many column inches devoted to who is heading from west to east as the opposite direction. The only moves that have rivalled the arrival of Didier Drogba is the move of Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United and the surprise departure of Park Ju-sung from that club to Queens Park Rangers.
Kagawa has United fans rubbing their hands in anticipation at what he can bring to their midfield in an offensive capacity. The thought of the Japanese playmaker, who scored 29 goals in two title-winning seasons with Borussia Dortmund and created quite a few too, linking up with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie is an exciting one. After just missing out on title number 20 on goal difference in May, the Old Trafford outfit have strengthened going forward.
There will still be more than a few of the 659 million fans worldwide that the club (with wild optimism) claim as fans sad to see Park in the blue and white shirt of QPR this weekend however. The South Korean was a Red Devil for seven years and earned acclaim around the world for his performances in that time as well as four Premier League medals and one champions League title. He quickly put to bed the suspicions that any Asian player signed is done so for commercial reasons.
Before Park, no Asian player had signed for such a big club, the biggest there is according to some. More importantly, he stayed and then he played and kept playing. In the end, he played over 200 games for the powerhouse. He saved some of his best performances for the really big games. He loved playing against Arsenal and Liverpool. His display against Chelsea in the season before last at Old Trafford ranked alongside any in the entire league that season.
But it was in the Champions League he really shone. In the biggest club competition of all and against the best players around, he fitted right in, just as he had done for PSV Eindhoven before his 2005 transfer. When England lost to Italy in the quarter-final of Euro 2012, Rio Ferdinand tweeted a reminder of Park’s masterclass in man-marking Andrea Pirlo. There were others that stand out – the semi-final performances against Barcelona in 2008 and Chelsea and Arsenal again in other knockout matches through the years.
We will never know if Kagawa would be at Old Trafford now if it wasn’t for Park but he sure was an influence on the Japanese star. “Watching him play for Manchester United motivated me a lot. I began to truly believe Asian players could play in big clubs,” said Kagawa last month.
“Park Ji-Sung is the best player Asia has ever produced and there’s no doubt about that. He played regularly for Manchester United for a long time. I cannot be sure how long it would take me to establish myself in the team like him. I will always work hard to do so, though. “Like Park, I will focus every day on training and do my best to stay here a long time.
For Asian fans it is just a little sad that they can’t see Korea and Japan’s most famous footballing exports line up together to terrorise Premier League defences. “I was expecting we could help each other and play together at United. It is a shame that he left Manchester United.”
That remains to be seen. At 31, Park still has much to give but it will be strange to see the Asian icon appear at Old Trafford as a visiting player. Now though, there is a new star in town. Shinji Kagawa has much to live up to but all are sure he has what it takes.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.
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