The most popular football player in Korea isn’t on the national team. He’s not even a professional. He’s a youth player. And I’m not just playing with words here. Most of the top Korean players, who play for their country or in the Premier League or Bundesliga, come nowhere near the popularity of Lee Seung-woo, born in 1998.
The “elementary schooler” recruited by Barcelona
Lee is Korea’s most popular football star because he plays for FC Barcelona. Football fans across the world take pride in the teams their players belong to. But the patriotism of Korean fans takes this emotion to a different level. Park Ji-sung is long retired but fans still revel in the fact that he played for Manchester United, one of the best teams in the world. Their pride grew even stronger when the Japanese footballer Shinji Kagawa said a reason he joined United was Park being there.
Barcelona is one of the very few clubs to be more respected than Manchester United. When Park was at the team, United lost to Barcelona in each of the two games they played in the UEFA Champions League. The mindshare Barcelona has among Korean football fans is immense. So it was a very big deal when a Korean player, even just a youth player, signed for them.
Lee was an unstoppable striker in elementary school. In Korea, school teams usually take part in youth leagues. Daedong Elementary, which Lee attended, is a well known “scout” school for top forwards. Daedong represented Korea in the 2010 Danone Nations Cup, and Lee ended up the top scorer. This moment changed his life: scouts from FC Barcelona offered him a transfer.
International transfer of minor players is illegal. FIFA stipulates that youth players play in teams near their homes. But the regulation was laxer in the past and Lee’s family decided to stake their fate on their young second son and uproot to Spain. But FIFA then punished Barcelona and three Korean footballers, including Lee, for violating Article 19 in FIFA’s “Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players”. (“International transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18.”)
Big football clubs had long been recruiting young players from Africa, Asia, and the Americas despite the regulations and many argued that the sanctions on Barcelona were “unjust”. But the Court of Arbitration for Sport dismissed the appeals. The sanction took effect in 2013 and ran until 2015 when Lee turned 18. During these crucial years, Lee found himself unable to play in official matches, even while regarded by his peers as the club’s best player. Korean fans were gripped with unease that his skills might atrophy.
The key player in the U-20 World Cup this May
Being the best offensive player in Barcelona’s youth team means having the chance to become the next Lionel Messi. But because of the transfer ban, there weren’t many opportunities for people to watch Lee on the field. The first time Koreans saw his skills and charm was in the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship held in Bangkok, Thailand.
Lee’s performances, which were aired live, surpassed expectations. His brave runs and stunning passes convinced Korea that Lee was the football prodigy the nation had been waiting for. He even led the team to the final. Particularly special were his two goals against Japan in the quarterfinals. For Koreans, football matches with Japan are akin to battles. For one of the goals, Lee dribbled close to half the field, weaving his way through four Japanese defenders.
The team South Korea faced in the final was another major rival: North Korea. Anticipating a South Korean victory, the Korea Football Association hurriedly invited more journalists to Bangkok to cover the final. However, the South Korean team finished runner-up, defeated by North Korea’s “socialist football”. But it was okay. South Korea hadn’t won the championship, but a star had been born.
For the KFA, Lee Seung-woo is a key player. South Korea is hosting the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup this May. For Chung Mong-gyu, the KFA president, this is the most important event of the year. For the South Korean team to do well and earn the nation’s attention, the KFA needs Lee.
“Call Lee Seung-woo up to the national team”
In March 2017, Lee Seung-woo’s skills were broadcast live once more. A sense of crisis had been brewing around the chance of South Korea not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Key players—including Son Heung-min, Koo Ja-cheol and Ki Sung-yueng—were underperforming, and in stepped Lee and the rest the U-20 World Cup team for several friendlies in South Korea.
Lee stole the spotlight yet again. His chip shot in the friendly against Zambia in Cheonan became a sensation. It was the first display of this technique by a Korea forward since Ahn Jung-hwan in 2002. Lee silenced views that he’d “surely missed the chance to develop”—which followed his failure to secure a call to the senior Barcelona squad—and re-established his image as a prodigy.
Additive to Lee’s popularity were his confidence, honesty and thirst for victory on the field, stark opposites to the lethargy of the national side. Enthralled by his skills and attitude, fans left comments on football articles that weren’t even about Lee, demanding “Call Lee Seung-woo up to the national team”.
There’s an anecdote that demonstrates Lee’s personality. In the match against Zambia, the defender Jeong Tae-wook fell to the ground unconscious after colliding with a Zambian player. When the medical team was slow to help, Lee yelled at them, “Hurry up! [Expletive] hurry up!” And this was on broadcast television. Lee is unique among Korean young players, the rest of whom seem polite to the point of timidity. And his character earns him even more attention.
In other countries, it’s common for footballers younger than Lee to play for their national sides. But nearly all also play professionally. It makes little sense to call up a player who isn’t yet a professional. At FC Barcelona, players on the first team and B team are considered professionals. So getting into Barcelona B is Lee’s next goal. That debut is long overdue given the level of expectations that surround him and the fact that he’s now 19. It would be a stretch to compare him to a player like Messi, but Messi debuted for Barcelona’s first team at the age of 17.
Despite these delays, Lee is nevertheless one of Korea’s most marketable footballers. He was sponsored by Nike until last year, when he signed with Adidas, and he now appears in a similar number of commercials to Korea players such as Koo Ja-cheol and Kim Seung-gyu. And his recent feats are rapidly adding to his value.
May is a month of destiny for him. The U-20 World Cup represents an opportunity for Lee to prove his abilities to Barcelona and other teams around the world. Korean football fans long for the national side to shift from its current style—which is built on passion and determination—to something more refined. It’s similar to how England saw Wayne Rooney in the lead up to Euro 2004. Rooney went on to demonstrate remarkable skill at the championship, scoring four goals. He became the hope of England’s attack. And all this at just 18, a year younger than Lee.
Lee’s real competition will begin after the U-20 World Cup, in Barcelona. He will have to move up to the B team and then work on promotion to the first team. Either that, or he’ll need to find a different club. The time is nearing for the world to see whether or not he is the savior of Korean football.
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