After South Korea defeated Uzbekistan in the third-place match of the Asian Cup on Friday, they made their way over to the bench and a player who didn't even participate in the match. There, the team picked up Park Ji-Sung and threw him up in the air, a traditional celebration in many Asian countries. Park, the Korean captain, announced that he would retire after the tournament and did not play in the match, instead being left off and ending his international career with exactly 100 caps.
The midfielder, who plays for Manchester United, is the greatest player to put the South Korea shirt on and while some might question why he would retire at just 29-years-old, Park steps away having had a massive impact on the Korean national team. He also has had a massive impact on the United States national team and enjoys legend status in U.S. soccer history thanks to one spectacular moment in 2002.
Needing just a draw to clinch advancement from their World Cup group in a tournament not played on U.S. soil for the first time since 1930, the United States were dominated by Poland and trailed 3-0. At the same time, South Korea and Portugal were playing in the other Group D match and a draw between the two would send the Koreans and Portuguese through to the knockout stage. The U.S. was all but done in their match and much to their horror, it looked as if South Korea and Portugal were going to play to a 0-0 draw.
The dozens of Americans watching the U.S. collapse in the wee hours of the morning might have been the only people as horrified watching the two scorelines from Group D than the U.S. team itself. Their magnificent 3-2 win over Portugal to open the tournament was going to go for not, but then Park pulled a moment of magic from his hat and delivered this beauty in the 70th minute.
Korea was ahead 1-0 and would hold onto that lead (the U.S. added a late, meaningless goal to lose 3-1), knocking Portugal out of the World Cup and sending the U.S. through to the knockout stages. Park achieved hero status in Korea in that tournament and his goal against the Portuguese remains the goal most Koreans cling to when speaking about their national hero.
Meanwhile, the U.S. went on to play Mexico in the round of 16, a match they won, 2-0. That win over Mexico may be the greatest win in U.S. soccer history as they took down their most hated rivals on the biggest stage in the sport and on a neutral field, knocking away any argument from the Mexicans that the U.S. could only beat them on U.S. soil.
In the quarterfinals, the U.S. played arguably their best match of the tournament and outclassed one of the best teams in world soccer history, Germany. Unfortunately for the Americans, several close chances went begging, Oliver Kahn made a handful of incredible saves, a couple balls bounced the wrong way and Hugh Dallas allowed a hand ball on the goal line to go uncalled and the U.S. lost the match, 1-0, to end their tournament. Nonetheless, that match was held up as proof by many in the world that the U.S. was no longer an also-ran in world soccer.
Since 2002, the U.S. has improved by leaps and bounds, but yet many still look back to 2002 as the national team's crowning achievement. The 2002 tournament remains the only time in modern history that the U.S. has won a knockout stage match in a World Cup and in the heated U.S. vs. Mexico rivalry, only the U.S. can say they have defeated the other in a World Cup.
All of the accomplishments for the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup was made possible by Park. Without his goal, the U.S. would have left the tournament with one highlight win, but the bitter taste of last day collapse and no record of a knockout stage appearance. So, as Park walks away from the South Korean national team and international soccer, he does so as a Korean legend, but also as a legend in U.S. soccer history for arguably the most important goal in U.S. soccer history.