(LEAD) Late-blooming football defender savors 1st int’l goal in World Cup qualifier

SEOUL, Three South Korean players scored a goal apiece in the team's 3-0 win over Thailand in their latest World Cup qualifying match Tuesday night in Bangkok, and defender Park Jin-seop had a particularly emphatic celebration. As soon as his right-footed shot from close range found the back of the net at Rajamangala Stadium, Park got down on both knees and raised his arms, and let out a primal scream of pure, unbridled joy. It was Park's first international goal in his sixth international match -- a moment the 28-year-old late-bloomer had long waited for but hadn't been sure would ever come. "I surprised myself with that celebration. It just came out naturally," Park told reporters with a smile after South Korea's comfortable victory. "I was just so happy. Sure, it was my first goal, but I was even happier that we came away with the big win in a tough away match." In a media scrum Wednesday at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, after returning from Bangkok, Park said he was grateful for the o pportunity to play in such a meaningful match. "Even though I don't play an attacking position, I always picture myself scoring goals," Park said with a smile. "I was surprised that it came true. My primary objective was just to get into a match. I was sent in earlier than I expected, and on top of that, I scored my first goal. It was a great match." Park's career arc to this point -- going from an overlooked college graduate to a reliable defender in both the top South Korean league and in international play -- is as unlikely as it is inspiring. Park couldn't land a K League contract out of college and ended up in the third-tier, semi-professional K3 League in 2017. After one strong season there, Park signed his first pro contract with Ansan Greeners FC in the second-division K League 2 in 2018. And later as a member of Daejeon Hana Citizen, Park was selected to the year-end K League 2 Best XI as a midfielder in 2021. In 2022, Park moved up to the top-flight K League 1, signing with Jeonbuk Hyundai Moto rs. He grabbed the starting center back spot and was voted onto the K League 1 Best XI in his first season there. Park has the rare distinction of having scored a goal in the K3 League, K League 2 and K League 1. Then in 2023, Park donned the national team colors for the first time. For the Asian Games in Hangzhou, an under-24 tournament, Park was selected as one of three overage players by head coach Hwang Sun-hong. Park helped South Korea win their third straight gold medal. Then about a month later, Park made his senior international debut under coach Jurgen Klinsmann in a World Cup qualifying match. Park also played in four matches during South Korea's run to the semifinals at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup earlier this year. With Klinsmann fired following South Korea's semifinal loss to Jordan at the Asian Cup, Hwang was brought in as a caretaker manager for the senior squad. And Hwang called up Park for the two World Cup qualifiers this month, a home-and-away series against Thailand. Pa rk stayed on the bench in Seoul when the two countries played the first leg last Thursday, but came off the bench to round out the scoring Tuesday night. Park will never be mistaken for a goal scorer. But with each international cap he picks up and each K League honor he earns, Park is adding to an improbable story. Park said Wednesday he was still pinching himself over how his career had been playing out over the past six or so months, from his Asian Games appearance to his first international goal. "I guess I could say it's been a dream come true. This has been such a wild ride that I didn't think it'd even be possible to have so many things happen for me," Park said. "I've been keeping my head down and working really hard, and I've been getting some help along the way. I will try not to forget where I come from." As for his next target, Park said, "I want to play at a World Cup." Source: Yonhap News Agency

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