Five months ago, I introduced Lee Seung-woo as South Korea’s most popular football player. And that remains the case. His supporters and detractors wage an online war of words every day. The reason Lee has not faded from memory and continues to attract attention is because he succeeded in leaving the youth team at Barcelona for a professional team. Lee Seung-woo is now the only South Korean football player in Italy.
The road to Verona
Last May, Lee Seung-woo, Paik Seung-ho, and Jang Gyeol-hee found themselves at a crossroads. Those who were chosen by FC Barcelona B could stay, while those who weren’t had to leave for different teams. Only two non-EU members are allowed in B teams, and Barcelona already had one from Brazil and another from Honduras, leaving no room for the Koreans. All three had to go.
Of the three, Jang Gyeol-hee’s career was most at risk and he was the first to make a pragmatic decision. He managed to transfer to Asteras Tripoli. Paik Seung-ho decided to stay in Spain, since it was familiar territory. He joined Girona’s B team. Although he now has to play in Segunda División B, the third level of the Spanish league, he can be promoted to La Liga if he performs well. He has chosen to try to climb through the ranks of his team, just as he did at Barcelona.
Lee Seung-woo, the best known of the three, exceeded predictions and signed for a strong team. He went to Hellas Verona, which has been oscillating between Serie A and B. Lee’s lack of professional experience meant that he was a big risk for any team. But the nickname “Korean Messi” and the high hopes people had for in him in his youth were enough to entice Verona.
Can Lee Seung-woo succeed?
Verona is a team that recruits once-popular strikers and uses them beyond expectations. Luca Toni, who was a member of Italy’s national team, won the top scorer award at the age of 38 during the 2014-2015 season and captained Verona. Verona was then relegated to Serie B, but it recently returned to Serie A with a trident of old national team Azzurri players, Giampaolo Pazzini, Antonio Cassano, and Alessio Cerci. The eccentric Cassano then decided to retire out of the blue, creating a hole in the forward line. So the team has decided to sign Lee Seung-woo and to take Moise Kean on loan, a Juventus striker born in 2000. Unintentionally, the team is now younger.
Verona has had one game since Lee joined. His work visa was expedited and he started the game on the bench. Seriously lagging behind Fiorentina, Verona had to put in a winger. Kean was chosen instead of Lee. As a result, Lee’s debut game has been delayed by a week.
Although he has yet to make his debut, his prospects seem great. The current forwards have yet to impress, and Lee will eventually get a start.
The response back home
Lee is the first Korean player to play in Serie A since Ahn Jung-hwan. While at Perugia, Ahn scored the winning golden goal against Italy in the 2002 World Cup. This elimination led to strong protests in Italy against him which, together with the racism there, forced Ahn to leave the country. Since then, Koreans have believed racism to be prevalent in Italian football. And this is somewhat true.
This year, Serie A is being broadcast live in Korea. Perugia is now in Serie B and home to Han Kwang-song, a North Korean player. Han has been the talk of the town as the top scorer in Serie B. Lee and Han competed in the finals of the AFC U-16 Championship in 2014. Lee was compared to Messi; Han, to Cristiano Ronaldo. It is fascinating to watch two 20-year-olds from the South and North realizing their dreams in Italy.
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