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SEOUL - For a boy who used to drink frog juice to help him grow, Park Ji-sung has come a long way.
The shaggy-haired South Korean, once judged too frail to make the grade at college level, has muscled his way into the mix at Manchester United and punches above his weight in England's tough Premier League.
While his father was so worried about his lack of size he made him drink boiled frog extract, Park's high school coach was never in doubt the scrawny youngster had the desire and attitude to make an impact at the highest level.
Lee Hak-jong, who still coaches at Suwon Technical High School on the outskirts of Seoul, remembers Park as a quiet boy with outstanding work ethic and discipline.
"I didn't push Park Ji-sung too hard with the tough, physical exercises because I was worried if he wasted too much physical energy he wouldn't grow," Lee said.
"He wasn't big enough to compete with the other players but had tremendous endurance. So I let him learn more about the basic skills, controlling the ball etc."
Park, who now has a street named after him in Suwon, was not the most skilful player in the side, but his was the first name down on Lee's team sheet thanks to his dynamism and drive.
Those same qualities have earned him nicknames such as "The Oxygen Tank" and "Three-Lunged Park" in Korea and Europe.
Despite guiding the team to their first national games victory in 1998, few university coaches shared Lee's faith in Park.
"After a lot of effort he was lucky enough to get into Myongji University," Lee said.
Given the lack of love in Korea, it was no surprise Park signed his first professional contract with a Japanese club, Kyoto Purple Sanga, in 2000. In doing so, the midfielder became the first Korean to appear in the J-League without first having played club soccer in Korea.
Park guided Kyoto to the J-League's second division title in 2001 and the Emperor's Cup in 2002, but it was on the international stage his performances would shine brightest.
Park flourished under the guidance of Guus Hiddink, the Dutch master who led Korea to the 2002 World Cup semifinals on home soil.
The Korean followed him to PSV Eindhoven after the World Cup and in his book credits Hiddink with transforming his career.
"If it was not for coach Hiddink I would not be where I am now," he wrote in his autobiography, Neverending Challenge. "I owe him everything."
After initially struggling, Park won over his PSV teammates and supporters with his bottomless reserves of energy and selfless playing style.
His performances, particularly in the Champions League, caught the eye of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, and in 2005 the club paid a reported $4 million to sign the Korean. - Reuters