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Why Man Utd must be careful with Park and learn from Arsenal to avoid Korean anger

With Park Ji-sung now entering the twilight of his career, Manchester United are facing a dilemma if they want to maintain their status across South Korea.

The signing of Park seven years ago and his success under manager Sir Alex Ferguson has seen United enjoy massive exposure - and commercial success - in South Korea. But Busan-based South Korean football expert Jeff Liebsch warns United must tread carefully with Park now in his veteran years if they want to maintain their positive profile with local sports fans.

"Park's impact in Korea has been huge over the past ten years. Manchester United has definitely gained a lot of exposure during his tenure with the club, as all their games are broadcast with his name on the screen if he is playing or not. Ratings actually dwindle when he doesn't play other than for soccer purists, but for the casual fan, if he is in the game people tend to pay more attention," Liebsch told tribalfootball.com.

United struck gold in signing Park from PSV Eindhoven, with the midfielder actually regarded as one of South Korea's greatest ever athletes.

Liebsch explains: "Park Ji-sung is regarded as one of the best athletes the country has ever produced and was voted the top South Korean athlete in 2011 in a national survey. He regularly appears in TV commercials and his face is plastered around the country.

"The only other athlete who garners the same amount of media attention is figure skater Kim Yu-na, who won the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics."

Now 31 , Park is entering his final years with United and Liebsch warns if they want to maintain their positive relationship with Korean sports fans, the Premier League giants must be careful when the decision arrives to phase out the midfielder.

"A lot will depend on how he leaves the club," says Liebsch.

"Arsenal is getting a lot of bad press in the local papers for not playing Park Chu-young. Announcing that they would come to Korea to play exhibition games outraged fans when Park isn't even playing.

"When Fulham came to Korea in 2008, the same thing happened with Seol Ki-hyun and they ended up playing two games in front of empty stadiums.

"Of course United has a much bigger following than Fulham, but anything that would be perceived disrespect to their national hero could be a big problem for them."

The United Park is close to Lee Chung-yong, who was flying at Bolton Wanderers before suffering a leg break in preseason last summer. Liebsch highlights the youngster among a handful of Koreans capable of eventually matching the high profile and success of Park in his native country.

"The K League has some great talent, but nobody is at the level of Park," says Liebsch.

"Most of the national team members are already playing abroad, and most of Korea's youth want to play overseas as its a chance for them to grow as players and learn a new style of football.

"Players like Koo Ja-cheol, Lee Chung-yong at Bolton, Ki Seung-yeung and Ji Dong-won are the new breed of players that have the best chance of emulating Park's success.

"The biggest obstacle for Korean players is not talent, but the ability to adjust culturally to their new surroundings and language.

"Park's thrived in Europe because he made the attempt to learn English and adapt culturally."

Sunderland striker Ji Dong-won is one youngster making headlines at home, particularly after his winner against Manchester City and Ki Sung-Yeung's form at Celtic - and interest from Liverpool - is also helping his club gain a foothold among Korean fans.

"Ji's been covered a fair amount by the Korean press, especially as he is the youngest Korean to play in the EPL," adds Liebsch.

"Ji's biggest success has been scoring the game winner against Man City and on the national team and is viewed as a rising star for Korea.

"Ki is widely popular in Korea and his desire to play for Liverpool is well-known in the Korean press. There had previously also been talk about Manchester United wanting his services a few months back that had the local press buzzing as well."

The success of Park, Ji and Lee shows Premier League clubs are now paying closer attention to the quality coming through in South Korea. But while on-pitch talent is becoming more of a guarantee, as Arsenal are discovering, English clubs still have much to learn if they're to convert that into commercial success.

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Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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