By Richard Martin
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - South Korea's best shot at being serious contenders again at the World Cup is to encourage more players to leave Asia and head to the epicentre of elite football in Europe, according to former inspirational midfielder Park Ji-sung.
South Korea have qualified for the last nine World Cups and are Asia's best-performing country in FOOTBALL's premier tournament so far, defying all expectations by reaching the semi-finals when they co-hosted the event with Japan in 2002.
They have struggled to come close to that remarkable showing in subsequent tournaments, however, failing to get out of their group in 2006 and 2014, and losing to Uruguay in the last 16 in 2010.
"European countries have improved a lot and we haven't been able to match them," former Manchester United midfielder Park, who represented his country at three World Cups including 2002, told Reuters in an interview.
"We need more of our players to follow the trend and move to Europe which is the biggest stage in world football, but we're not doing that, and that makes it difficult for us to compete with other countries."
Only five players in coach Shin Tae-yong's 23-man squad that travelled to Russia play outside of Asia, with Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min being their most famous export.
"There is also a different atmosphere compared to other tournaments and that can be difficult to deal with," added Park, whose heroics in 2002 earned him a move to PSV Eindhoven and later United, where he lifted four Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League.
"There is still a big gap between South America and Europe and Asia, and if we had more players playing in Europe the gap would be smaller. But for now we need to try our best to get to the next stage, take the next step."
South Korea's limp 1-0 defeat to Sweden in their opening game means they have won only one of their last 10 World Cup matches. They will have to improve on that record when they play Mexico on Saturday to have any hope of getting out of Group F.
"It was a bad result, a bad performance for us, we didn't expect that but it happened and now we need to deal with it," added Park, who retired in 2014 and is working as an analyst for South Korean television at the tournament in Russia.
Mexico pulled off the biggest shock so far by beating Germany 1-0 in their opener, but Park is optimistic his side can spring a surprise of their own at the Rostov Arena, especially if talismanic forward Son, the nation's most recognised player since Park, can deliver.
"I know Mexico is stronger than us. They had a great performance against Germany so it'll be tough but if we prepare well and play 100 percent you never know - it's football," he added.
"We'll play a different formation, have different tactics than against Sweden, so maybe we can use him (Son) more than in the first game.
"We need to use him more so he can be more of a threat. I can't tell how he's going to do it, but we need him and we need to help him play well."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Hugh Lawson)