Aashish Gadhvi waves a final goodbye to Lee Young-pyo
This Asian Cup tournament has seen the retirement of two of South Korea’s greatest ever footballers from the international game. Lee Young-pyo and Park Ji-sung have both decided to call it a day and hang up their boots for their country. No country could ask for two more solid professionals to represent them and they will be sorely missed from the game and the fans. I did consider whether to write one article paying homage to both these players but really their achievements as well as their place in history deserved to be given a spotlight on their own. Although both of these players did follow a very similar path in their rise to stardom and contributed to the national team at the same time, they still deserved to be hailed one at a time and it is here that we recap the magnificent career of South Korea’s left back extraordinaire Lee Young-pyo.
Lee was born on the 23rd of April 1977 in Hongcheon, Gangwon province, in the North East of South Korea, fairly close to North Korea. His youth career was spent at Konkuk University before being signed by the now defunct Anyang LG Cheetahs. During Lee’s time there Anyang won the K-League and the Korean Super Cup. Thanks to the successes and quality of his performances during these competitions Lee was chosen for the now legendary 2002 World Cup squad, which is where his career really took off. Lee made his World Cup debut in Korea’s third match against Portugal where his trademark bursting runs with skill and step-overs down the left wing bamboozled the Portuguese so much that they had no choice but to hack him down, earning Beto a red card for his troubles. Against Italy his performance was equally great and many forget that it was Lee Young-pyo who crossed the ball into the box for Ahn Jung-hwan to head in the golden goal. During the tournament Lee also wore the coveted number 10 shirt, often reserved for the best player in the team. He has never worn the number since but it certainly suited him in that tournament. What was most astonishing about his performances were his skill and confidence, as well as the classic work rate. Never before had an Asian player dared to take on European players on the biggest stage with the kind of flair and tenacity which Lee did. Since then his darting runs down the wings and step-overs have been his trademark. Ahn Jung-hwan may have stolen most of the headlines and defender Hong Myung-bo was Korea’s best player in the tournament but going forward there is no doubt that Lee Young-pyo was the jewel in the crown.
When the tournament finished coach Guus Hiddink left to take charge of PSV Eindhoven in his native Holland and with him he took Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo. While Park found it more difficult to adapt to the Dutch game and also suffered setbacks through injuries, Lee soon found his way into the first team and proved a fan favourite as well as a solid performer. This culminated in the 2005 season in which PSV got to the semi finals of the Champions League only to loose out to AC Milan on away goals. In the second leg match in which PSV won 3-1 Park scored the opening goal and Lee assisted in the second goal. This was the pinnacle of the pairs’ Dutch adventure. That was to be their last season at the club and both players travelled to England where Lee signed for North London club Tottenham Hotspur and Park signed for Manchester United.
This time it was Lee who struggled to find his way at the club, after an initial good start was thwarted by injuries and loss of form. What didn’t help was Spurs manager Martin Jol declaring Lee was the best left back in Holland, which he probably was but being the best left back in Holland doesn’t guarantee being the best left back in England. His time at Spurs has always been seen as indifferent even without the injuries. But even with these setbacks he still made 70 appearances for the club in three seasons, more or less similar to his achievements at PSV, but with a severe lack of appearances in major European competition. Lee’s time at Tottenham culminated in the 2008 League Cup victory which was Spurs’ first silverware for many years. Although Lee missed out on a place in the final he did play in the historic 5-1 victory over North London rivals Arsenal. After his time at Spurs he moved to German giants Borussia Dortmund in 2008. But again he stayed for only one season, before moving to current club Al-Hilal in the Saudi Premier League, where he has already won the domestic league and Crown Prince Cup.
While his club career is one that any Asian player would want, Lee has always been first and foremost dedicated to his national service. Lee has played in three World Cups for Korea, and since making his World Cup debut against Portugal in 2002, has played in every Korean World Cup match since and amazingly has only once been substituted. That’s eleven out of twelve World Cup matches for his country in which he has played the entire match. Only Park Ji-sung has a better record from the last three World Cups. Lee has been so prolific for his country that despite his age he continues to hold down the left back position. Promising young left backs such as Kim Chi-woo have fallen by the wayside but Lee has kept his consistency. His final cap count stands at 127 appearances.
What perhaps sets Lee Young-pyo apart from the rest of his compatriots is his nature as a person. A devout Christian he has often commented on his work on the pitch being the work of God and somewhat controversially has suggested that more Christians in the team would result in more success. He even managed to turn bad boy Lee Chun-soo into a believer! There were even rumours while he was at Tottenham that he refused a transfer to Roma in Italy on religious grounds, although he denies this. As expected from a Korean player of his generation Lee has always been very humble in nature. I was lucky enough to interview him and he showed absolutely no hesitation when I approached him for a chat. But when considering pure action on the pitch, is Lee Young-pyo the best Korean footballer from the 2002 golden generation? An interesting proposal. He is certainly less consistent than Park Ji-sung, his size and lack of strength have let him down defensively in the past and he is better going forward than back. He also didn’t score as many goals as he probably should have for a player as attacking as him, despite being a left back. But I myself have never seen Korean fans get more excited when watching football than from the sight of Lee Young-pyo bursting down the left wing with his skills and step overs which always raise the roof, even more so than when Park Ji-sung has the ball. Whereas Park has had to work hard to reach his level and overcome great difficulties, Lee Young-pyo is a naturally gifted talent and attacking wise there has never been a more exciting Korean winger. Lee is a showman and an entertainer and his trademarks will be missed, from the way he attacks the wings to him closing his eyes during the national anthem to him falling to his knees and praying with fellow Christian players after a victory. Was he the best player of the 2002 generation? Possibly. Was he the most exciting to watch? Easy answer: yes.