Manchester United is arguably soccer/football’s most storied franchise. While soccer fans worldwide might argue against that contention, when measured by market value, the club affectionately known as "Man U" is indeed the world’s most valuable club in any sport, worth over $1.2 billion in 2004. By comparison, the oversubscribed New York Yankees’ franchise is worth a measly $849 million (2003 estimate). Right now, Liverpool FC may be the best club in the English Premier League and the European League Champion, but Man U is historically soccer’s greatest club. Man U, one of the few publicly traded football clubs (Man U was listed on the London Stock Exchange until June 2005, when it was purchased outright by private group Red Football Limited), operates like a corporate. It has done a fabulous job over the years cultivating its global brand through clever marketing strategies such as worldwide exhibition matches. For example, in July 2003 the club returned to play in Seattle for the first time since the early 1980s, defeating Celtic FC 4-0 in an exhibition match. In 1982, the Seattle Sounders, then part of the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL), actually beat Man U 3-0 in an exhibition match. The two matches highlight just how high Man U has risen since the early 1980s (and how far the Sounders have fallen).
Manchester United has faced difficulties on and off the field since it traded legendary star David Beckham traded to Real Madrid in July 2003 for $41 million. The star power that Beckham generated for the club helped it financially but hurt it internally because Beckham’s personality cast a large shadow over the team. In May 2005, American Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers National Football League franchise, increased his ownership stake in Man U to 75%, putting him in firm control of the club. A yankee now controls soccer’s most valuable franchise, highlighting just how global a brand Man U has become. The English may not like the fact that their highest-profile franchise is owned by an American (and the fact that Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich owns the Chelsea franchise). However, the owner who transformed the hapless Buccaneers into the winner of the 2003 Superbowl will do his best to return Man U to glory on the field. I think he can do it.
The club has now bet big on Korean soccer in the hope that the club will again rise to the top of the English Premier League and the European League. In late July, Ji-Sung Park, the 24-year-old Korean soccer phenomenom previously with Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, signed a rich contract with Man U worth an estimated $7.25 million. It is Man U’s highest profile acquisition since the Beckham trade. Park is perhaps the most famous celebrity in Korea today, even more popular than Korean actor Bae Yong Jun, singer Boa, golfer Se Ri Pak, and baseball star Chan Ho Park. Ji-Sung Park first attained iconic status in Korea when he scored the winning goal against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup. Invariably, whenever I talk to Koreans about sports, Park’s name comes up. Most Koreans I talked to seem to know about his meteoric rise in detail, easily recounting how the son of a taxi driver became a soccer prodigy and went on to greatness under the tutelage of Dutch Coach Gus Hiddink, coach of the 2002 Korean national team.
The midfielder is indeed an excellent player, although he was criticized by former Coach Hiddink for leaving PSV Eindhoven one year early in his development to move to Manchester United. Hopefully, the desire for fame and fortune won’t overshadow the discipline and training he needs to become one of the game’s elite players. Park may not yet be the second coming of Beckham, but he is indeed one of the sport’s most promising players today and now one of the world’s top Asian players. (I still believe 15-year-old American soccer phenom Freddie Adu, who plays for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, has the most potential to become soccer’s greatest star in years to come. Most Koreans I talk to do not know who Freddie Adu is. Heck, neither do Americans! Most are shocked to find out a 15-year-old player made $500,000 in 2004.) Ji-Sung Park may not yet be a household name outside Korea and Holland, but he is a young, talented player who will likely become Man U’s franchise player. As he admitted himself, he does not have Beckham’s dashing good looks, but as longs as his legs will carry him, he could be just as successful on the field as Beckham, sans the cult of personality. He is Man U’s great Korean hope, and Koreans everywhere hope that he will lead the club and Korea to greatness.