SEOUL — Korean soccer star Park Ji Sung’s favorite book is “The Da Vinci Code.”
Such is the fervor in the Southern Korean media over the attacking midfielder’s move to English giant Manchester United that even his love for Dan Brown’s best-seller is noteworthy. After all, Park became the first Korean to play in the English Premier League, and Korean journalists can’t get enough of his exploits from the northern English city.
Park, who had played for Dutch team PSV Eindhoven, made his debut for the Red Devils in a preseason exhibition game against Scottish club Clyde on Sunday, playing the first 45 minutes.
“He is the symbol of our hope and our desire,” Korean soccer writer Kim Se Hoon said. “Now Korean players want to succeed, and they see Park as an example. They want to play in the English league, too, and Manchester United is even more popular here.”
The Manchester club is considered the world’s biggest sports franchise, and with Park on board, it has opened up a massive market in Korea, which should please new owner Malcolm Glazer, an American billionaire. The team, which already had a giant following in Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong, leaves this week for a 12-day tour of Hong Kong, China and Japan. Fans in Korea already are trading in the red-and-white stripes of PSV Eindhoven for the red of Manchester United.
“For Koreans, sport is an expression of its country, as it was with the old communist countries,” said Mike Breen, author of “The Koreans.” “They passionately support these athletes because it brings prestige to the nation. Whether it’s football, golf, speed skating or archery, if they are winning, it’s front page in everyone’s mind.”
United coach Alex Ferguson sees the 24-year-old as the man who one day will succeed talented veteran Ryan Giggs on United’s right flank.
The speedy Park, who is known for his tight ball control, moved to England in a four-year, $7million deal that was finalized this month.
“A lot of Korean fans believe Manchester United is one of the best teams in the world, and they have a lot of interest in me signing for the club,” Park told the British media.
Park has played 38 times for his country and helped South Korea book its sixth consecutive World Cup last month.
“He is a very good player,” said American DaMarcus Beasley, who played alongside Park at PSV. “He works up and down the field. He’s got a great first-touch skill on the ball. Manchester will have a great player on their hands.”
Meanwhile, Park’s old team, PSV, takes on French champion Lyon in Suwon in the final game of Group A at the Peace Cup today. The game will be a rematch of the 2003 Peace Cup final, which saw the Dutch team run away with the $2 million prize money. The Group A winner will face either Boca Juniors, Tottenham Hotspur or Sundowns FC in Group B.