Clock ticking as Lee makes his best pitch to play again

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Clock ticking as Lee makes his best pitch to play again

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Lee Chun-soo

A once-promising football star often compared to Premier League player Park Ji-sung in their early years is struggling to continue his career because of an unresolved three-year-old dispute with his former club.

Lee Chun-soo, one of Korea’s Taegeuk Warriors who advanced to the semifinals of the World Cup in 2002, was stripped of his K-League membership after he left the Chunnam Dragons in 2009 without permission.

The 31-year-old player is not only known for his fiery, independent character and retort but also for his goal-chasing talent and flamboyant sense of fashion.

He clashed with the coaching staff of the Dragons almost from the beginning after he was moved from the Suwon Bluewings.

He left the Dragons later that year seeking a career overseas.

After playing in Saudi Arabia and Japan for two-and-a-half years, Lee, a 2005 K-League MVP, returned in December, hoping to finish his career in his home country.

But without the Chunnam Dragons’ consent, the K-League cannot reinstate his membership. The football club has refused to consider it, saying it would be bad precedent.

Frustrated and desperate, Lee tried to catch on with teams in the lower level National League, his aides said.

They said Lee contacted Cho Min-guk, coach of the Ulsan Mipo Dockyard, who was his mentor at Korea University, early this month.

Cho approached the Korea Football Association concerning whether it would be possible for Lee to play in the National League.

The coach delivered a “penitent” message from Lee that he would donate all his salary to youth football players in Gwangyang, a South Jeolla city where the Chunnam Dragons are based.

But the KFA responded that Lee cannot play in any local leagues under the KFA unless the Dragons withdraw their old request to punish him.

“It was like grasping at straws for him,” said an aide to Lee. “But that plan also fell apart, so he is now agonizing over a next step.”

The door for him to play in the K-League this year will be closed if he cannot reconcile with the club by July 30, the deadline for registration of players.

Lee said on a recent talk show on cable channel tvN that he would retire if he can not play for a year.

“I will keep apologizing [until it is accepted],” Lee was quoted as saying by an aide.

Some observers in the local football community say that the Korea Football Association and the K-League should have direct talks with the Chunnam Dragons. They believe that Lee’s reinstatement could help boost the slumping popularity of the local football league.

By Kim Hwan, Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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