By Sean Carroll
Kyoto Purple Sanga’s 3-2 defeat of JEF United Ichihara Chiba on June 24th 2000 isn’t only notable for being the highest-scoring fixture in that day’s J.League action, but also because it marked the J.League debut of one of the true greats of the Asian game - Park Ji-sung.
The South Korean had joined Kyoto from Myongji University ahead of the second stage of the 2000 season and was immediately brought into the starting line-up alongside the likes of Yasuhito Endo (J.League record appearance holder, now of Júbilo Iwata) and the king himself, Kazuyoshi Miura, as the team looked to improve on a difficult first half of the season when they had finished bottom of the rankings and managed just two wins.
Park went on to make a key contribution as Kyoto’s form picked up and they secured a 12th-place finish in the second stage - making 13 appearances and notching his first J.League goal with the consolation tally in a 3-1 defeat against Kashima Antlers, who went on to be crowned champions - but their slow start to the campaign ultimately saw them relegated as the second-bottom side overall.
Park established himself as a key player for Kyoto in the second division in 2001, making 38 appearances and finding the net three times as they pipped Vegalta Sendai to the J2 title by one point (84 to 83). The following year he truly broke out as a star, first in the J.League and then on the world stage.
Park found a golden touch in the first stage of the season as Kyoto won all four of the games in which he scored, including a V-Goal in the 113th minute against Vissel Kobe after coming on as a substitute.
He then introduced himself to an international audience at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, playing a starring role as the co-hosts progressed all the way to the semi-finals. Before being eliminated by Germany at that stage, South Korea defeated the likes of Portugal, Italy, and Spain, with Park playing in every match and scoring the only goal of the game against Portugal as the co-hosts secured top spot in their group with 7 points.
He then took that confidence into his displays for Kyoto in the second stage of the J.League season, scoring a further three times as the club recorded their highest-ever J1 finish of fifth overall. Before leaving the J.League at the end of the season to rejoin former South Korea manager Guus Hiddink at Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, Park also helped write some more history for Kyoto as they won the Emperor’s Cup final against Kashima.
Euller put Kashima in front after a quarter of an hour, but Park headed home the equaliser in the 50th minute before Teruaki Kurobe found the net again for Kyoto with 10 minutes to play to deliver their first - and to date, only - Emperor’s Cup crown.
That was to be his final appearance for Kyoto, but Park never forgot the vital role the club and the J.League played in helping to kickstart his glittering career, and a Kyoto shirt sat proudly alongside those he had worn for his university, his country, and European sides PSV, Manchester United, and Queens Park Rangers at his retirement press conference in May 2014.