An underachiever may be rising at lastWhen you look at the stats of the leading scorers of the K-League, there is one name that has been around Korean soccer for quite a while. As of Wednesday, ranked fifth with six goals, scoring 0.5 goals per game, is Lee Dong-kuk, playing currently for the Sangmu Phoenix (Sangmu is a special army unit for Korean athletes who have to serve their mandatory term). Lee started playing professionally in 1998 when he joined the Pohang Steelers.
Lee’s story is much like a roller coaster, and fans, if there are any left, must be hoping that we are at the start of another high-speed run.
As a senior in high school, Lee was already superb. His signing contract was at the time 150 million won ($124,000), the highest ever for a kid just out of school. The same year he made it to the national team and played at the 1998 World Cup in France.
In a game against the Netherlands, the young player’s aggressive shots made a good impression and everything pointed to an emerging star.
Nevertheless, when Guus Hiddink took over the national team, Lee’s name was not on the roster. Korean coaches who had seen Lee’s potential urged the Dutch coach to reconsider, but the decision was made. For Lee, who never doubted that he would put on the national team’s colors, being dropped from the team must have been a shocker. While Hiddink juggled with the roster for a year and a half, players came and went. Lee played exhibition matches, but failed the final cut.
Had he been on the national team, he would have received a free pass from mandatory army service, just like Ahn Jung-hwan and some others who, thanks to their strong showing in the World Cup, now just need to enroll in a four-week boot camp.
At the time, the coaching staff came to the conclusion that Lee had not improved much, while other players had worked hard. Even Hong Myung-bo, who had been the undisputed leader of the Korean team for years, said that times had changed and that he had to work constantly to maintain his spot.
Reputation for the Dutch coach meant little. Nor did potential. Improvement and success came solely from grindingly hard work.
Even Lee’s agent, Lee Young-jung, criticized his client, saying that Lee had too much of an ego. Being hailed as a star by the media and fans the moment he became a professional, Lee always had an air of arrogance.
In a friendly match in Seoul against Japan on April 16, Lee was again given a chance to prove that he could live up to the potential that was once recognized by so many.
Nevertheless, after the game, Humberto Coelho, the new skipper of the national team, cut Lee from the team for the same reason Hiddink had ― Lee was seen by yet another expert as being lazy.
It may have been that last shock that finally rang a bell in Lee’s head, because since then, everyone agrees that Lee is playing much better. Whatever it was, let’s hope Lee Dong-kuk has finally learned that no matter how good his natural skills are, he must do the work, just like everyone else.
His recent performaces indicate tha he has learned something. As they say, everyone learns something in the army.
by Brian Lee
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