Friday, October 7, 2011
Lee back in the South Korea spotlight
"There's no pressure on me, no burden," said Lee Dong-Gook as he was recalled to the South Korean national team last week. "I am just going to talk to the younger players and share my experience." If his youthful team-mates can free eyes and attention from their iPhones for long enough, they should be in for quite a story. Talk of roller-coaster careers is common in football but Lee's ride really has been a wild series of disappointments and delights. 2011 could be the most exciting yet.
Excitement and delight are not things that fans in England associate with the 32 year-old. Neither are goals but in Asia this year, the Lion King, so named after an early hairstyle, has been gorging himself on local and foreign game. It would not be a surprise if he is named the Asian Player of 2011 and while it would still be a big surprise if he makes it to Brazil in 2014, it is now not completely out of the question.
Lee, who played 45 minutes against Poland on Friday evening in Seoul as Korea drew 2-2, is not a man to think too much about such things. This was a player who, in international terms at least, was born in a crossfire hurricane, coming into the national team for the final game of the 1998 World Cup just as coach Cha Bum-Keun had been fired following a 5-0 defeat against Netherlands. He was the top scorer at the 2000 Asian Cup and established himself in the national team ahead of 2002, the tournament that an entire country was waiting for with bated breath. Surprisingly, Guus Hiddink didn't include the then-23 year old in his final squad.
It was a devastating blow. Lee has since said that at first he struggled to watch the wins over Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain, one of an unhappy few in the Land of the Morning Calm (and temporary evening frenzy) not gripped by the exploits of the national team. If that wasn't enough, the 23 heroes of 2002 were exempted from their two-year military duty by a grateful government. Lee started his soon after the finals, time enough to reflect on what might have been and to build resolve that such setbacks would not reoccur.
By the time 2006 came along he was in the form of his life. Some spectacular strikes during qualification for the World Cup meant that he was once again the team's main striker. This time, there was no danger that Dick Advocaat was going to axe the marksman, who had dyed his hair silver. But, just two months before Germany, fate did the damage. Lee, yards from any opponent, got his studs caught in a Korean pitch and tore a cruciate ligament. Once again, he was forced to sit and watch the World Cup, and watch he did, travelling to Germany to support the team
His next taste of competitive football came in the English Premier League with Middlesbrough in February 2007. His next touch in competitive football was a glorious chance that presented itself within moments of his introduction at the Riverside against Reading. Five minutes from the end, Lee was found unmarked at the edge of the six yard-box, with the goal and instant glory beckoning. The shot, however, bounced off the post and away. Perhaps if Lee had been on the pitch a little longer, perhaps if he had not been out of action for ten months, perhaps if he had not been trying so hard, the back of the net may have bulged. It was disappointing but didn't seem like a huge deal at the time. The fans were good-humoured, the team still won, and there would be other opportunities. Unofrtunately for Lee, he was unable to take any of them.
Asian fans can be sensitive and defensive about their heroes when they go overseas and fail, or flop in tabloid terminology. 'The team are not playing in a way that suits him', they say. 'His team-mates don't pass to him', 'the referee doesn't protect him', 'the opposition kicks him' or 'the manager doesn't trust or understand him'. It is true that the injury had slowed Lee down, robbed him of mobility and some of his explosive power, but the fact remained that Gareth Southgate allowed the Lion King to hunt - he just wasn't able to make a kill.
Goals against Northampton and Mansfield in the cup just weren't enough to satisfy even the relatively modest, by Premier League standards, appetites of Boro fans. A Daily Mail survey had the player pipping Darren Bent and Dirk Kuyt to the prize of the Premier League's worst striker in 2007 and when disappointment becomes derision and then pity, you know that it is time to go. "It has not been a waste," he said as he left at the end of the 2007-08 season after 23 league games with no goals. "I tried my best and learned a lot and it will always help me."
He was right, though not immediately. First he went to Seongnam, the most successful team in Korean history. His short stay just south of Seoul didn't go especially well as coach Kim Hak-Beom made it clear that he hadn't really wanted the player at all. Soon then, he made his way south-west to the city of Jeonju to play for 2006 Asian champions Jeonbuk Motors.
If his career had stalled then it was soon shifting up the gears as he fitted in among the more laid-back air of Korea's Jeolla Province. The team was settled, the coach was long-serving and Jeonbuk were at last becoming a force in Korean football. Helped by Lee's goals, they won a first domestic title at the end of his debut season in 2009.
Lee was scoring on a consistent basis, not always easy in a K-League that has traditionally been known more for defensive solidity than attacking prowess. A return to the national team was oft-debated but not a given. This was partly due to the fact that he had been banned for one year. The Korean Football Association didn't take kindly to the news that during the 2007 Asian Cup, Lee and three other members of the squad had been out drinking all night at a Karaoke bar in Jakarta on two separate occasions between games.
In the end, Lee did make the squad for the 2010 World Cup but had little time on the pitch and little impact. With the arrival of Cho Kwang-Rae after the tournament ended, a man with the stated aim and record of giving youngsters a chance, his international career seemed over. That was before this season. At the time of writing, 16 goals have come in the K-League, with only Montenegrin international Dejan Damjanovic managing more. Nobody, though, has bettered his 15 assists and at the semi-final stage of the Asian Champions League, Lee is leading the charts with nine - a tally that includes a four-goal haul against Cerezo Osaka of Japan.
That performance, one that still included missed chances as Lee still tends towards wastefulness, earned him a recall to the national team.
In all likelihood, Lee is not going to be in Brazil, assuming Korea qualify, but if a last World Cup, 16 years after his first, eludes him, he could at least make the Club World Cup. All Jeonbuk need to do is overcome Al-Ittihad in the semi-final and then win a one-off match against either Suwon Samsung Bluewings or Al-Saddin at their home stadium, and Lee will be heading to Japan in December. The way things are goinghe will probably be top scorer, too, and that really would be something to give Middlesbrough fans a double-take.