Stielike’s Cinderel-Lee sets eyes on Europe

February 12, 2015

Asian Cup sensation Lee Jeong-hyeop says he’d like to play in the Bundesliga  

Lee Jeong-hyeop (Yonhap)

Lee Jeong-hyeop (Yonhap)

By Kim Jae-heun

NAMHAE, South Gyeongsang Province ― Situated at the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, this small county is hosting the off-season training of the Army football team. Its most popular member is Asian Cup sensation Lee Jeong-hyeop.

The Korea Times visited the Namhae Sports Center this week to catch up with Lee after the championship. Like many athletes who rose to quick stardom, Lee’s schedule was full of interviews.

Until a few months ago, the 25-year-old was an unknown back-up striker for the South Korean military team, and playing on the national team was only a dream. But the new national football team coach Uli Stielike turned this dream into reality last month. The German coach unexpectedly picked Lee as one of the forwards for the Asian Cup in Australia.

Lee recalled his first encounter with the man that transformed his football career.

“Stielike came to watch the players in the semi-final match against Seoul Football Club (FC) at the FA Cup,” Lee said. “I thought he came to check out Cha Du-ri or Kim Ju-young of Seoul F.C. I did not expect him to watch me at all.”

Stielike watched Lee several times before he decided to include the striker in the roster.

“Assistant coach Shin Tae-yong visited my last game in the season on behalf of Stielike and I scored two goals,” Lee said. “Assistant coach Shin Tae-yong told me I made the national team, but Sangju Sangmu was relegated to the second league so I was neither happy nor sad.”

Lee remembered the first time he met Stielike before the team departed from Incheon International Airport for off-season training on Jeju Island. Lee was curious why the coach took the risk of choosing an unproven back-up striker for the Asian Cup title. But he only exchanged nods with the German because of his lack of English speaking skills.

Lee finally had a chance to ask Stielike during a personal meeting in Sidney.

“Coach told me my movement off the ball impressed him and that I played with confidence and determination,” said Lee.

When asked about his strength, Stielike had said he picked his energy on the field to win headers and create space. His ability to participate in defense to lessen the burden on midfielders or defenders also played a factor in the decision.

Lee had the greatest performance of his life at the Asian Cup with a total of three goals to carry the Korean national team to the final for the first time in 28 years. Lee scored his debut goal on the international stage against Saudi Arabia in a friendly match. Then he scored the winning goal against the tournament’s host Australia to secure first place in Group A and headed in an opening goal in the semi-final against Iraq.

Lee proved he was a capable center forward that the team needed. “I never thought of playing in any other position except for attacker,” said Lee. “I love the sense of excitement when I blast the goal into the net.”

Future goals

Despite his excellent performance at the tournament, his status as a soldier serving a mandatory two years in the military has eliminated opportunities to play abroad. Lee said he hoped to play in the European league one day, but for now, his priority lies with the Army team.

“If I get a chance, I want to play in the Bundesliga,” said Lee. “Some Korean players have found success in Germany. Son Heung-min is a good example. He plays in the German league and he proved his ability in the Asian Cup with top-class technique and composure. I can learn from their experiences.”

Lee’s favorite player is a Bundesliger Robert Lewandowski of FC Bayern Munich. He says he likes Lewandowski’s versatility and sense for the game.

Lee picked Hwang Sun-hong as his favorite Korean player. They share the same position ­ center forward. “I watched Korea play their first match against Poland in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. I was mesmerized by striker Hwang’s opening volley.”

Lee said his dream is to play for Real Madrid in the future. And to realize the dream, he promised to perform his best no matter what.

“My immediate goal is to win the gold medal at the International Military Sports Council (CISM) World Games that will be held in Korea later year,” said Lee. “I heard it won’t be easy as some soldiers were former athletes at home.”

The 6th CISM World Games is the world’s largest multi-sport event for military sportspeople. It will be held in Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang Province, from Oct. 2-Oct. 11. The CISM organizes various sporting events for the armed forces of 134 member countries.

Park Hang-seo, Lee’s coach at Sangju Sangmu, had some advice for Lee.

“Lee is certainly gaining a lot of the spotlight at the moment,” said Park. “But this is only the beginning and I hope he does not stop here, thinking that this is the pinnacle of his success. As long as I am heading the team, I will keep pushing him to his limits.”