Lee steps into lead role

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Lee steps into lead role


Lee Chung-yong of the Bolton Wanderers poses during an interview with Ilgan Sports in Manchester, England, on Dec. 30. [JoongAng Ilbo]

For the last decade, Park Ji-sung of PSV Eindhoven has been a Korean football icon. He led the Korean national team as a core member in many international matches because he was the only player who had played with Europe’s biggest clubs, such as Manchester United. However, Park is no longer a member of United and retired from the national team.

Meanwhile, Lee Chung-yong, 26, of the Bolton Wanderers, has become the most loved player among Korean fans who consider him to be the next Korean football icon. Lee was sidelined for more than a year after he broke his shin in a preseason match in 2011. After a long and difficult rehab process, he reassumed his role as the ace player of the national team and the Wanderers.

Lee became the captain of the national team for the first time in his career in November and led the team’s 2-1 victory over Switzerland in a friendly match by scoring the winning goal. In a recent poll conducted by the Korea Football Association, Lee was named as the player of the year for 2013. Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, interviewed Lee in Manchester, England, on Dec. 30. Here are some excerpts.

Q. How do you respond to fans who say you are the true successor of Park Ji-sung?

A. Well, I learned many things when he was my roommate when he played for the national team in 2011. I felt that his personality and lifestyle are somewhat similar to mine, and I’m trying to be like him, but I think I still need to improve many things to be like Park, who once played on a big club like Manchester United.

How did Park impact you?

When he played with United, his house was only 30 minutes away from my place. We talked to each other many times via phone and he gave me a lot of advice, even about minor things like how I can find a good Korean supermarket. He also gave me tips about teams in the English Premier League. He was also one of the few people who consistently called me to cheer me up when I was injured in 2011. But since he started dating SBS announcer Kim Min-ji, he doesn’t answer my calls as much. [laughs]

Do you think Park will join the national team before the World Cup?

He is getting married in the summer [laughs]. It would be a huge plus for the team if he does, but the person I know never changes his decision once he makes one.

Analysts and fans say you should be the captain of the Taegeuk Warriors in the World Cup. What are your thoughts?

[The friendly against Switzerland] was my first time being the captain of a team since I started playing football when I was a fourth-grader in elementary school. I tried to read the game and lead the team well, but I felt I need more experience to do that. I think the best option for a team captain is Koo Ja-cheol of VfL Wolfsburg because he has already done the same job in the 2010 London Olympics under Coach Hong Myung-bo’s leadership.

Korea is grouped with Russia, Algeria and Belgium. Some say it was one of the best draws in the history of Korean football. Do you agree?

It will be a very competitive one, though I don’t feel like we won’t advance to the second round. We lost to Russia, [2-1], in a friendly match in November, but I don’t think we did a bad job in that match because we were more focused on testing strategies than winning the game. I think their biggest weapon is their coach, Fabio Capello, who has led many big clubs, including Real Madrid. I only saw Algeria’s football team via television during the 2010 South Africa World Cup. Their football style is similar to a Middle East country like Iraq. One of the most impressive players on the Belgium team is Christian Benteke of the Aston Villa FC.

You are known as an honest player. Do you think Coach Hong needs to add Park Chu-young of Arsenal to his lineup?

I just speak what I think honestly, and since the lineup card belongs to Hong, I think I should respect that. [After a long pause] I know that Park had a hard time trying to get a chance to play, but I think a player like him, who has been considered one of the best Korean football [players], can easily get back in shape if he gets a little time on the field. We should consider his skills and experience. Because we have six more months until the Brazil event, I hope he will spend the remaining time wisely.

You had a terrible injury. Have you recovered fully?

I can’t say that I’m 100 percent the same as before I got injured, but I think I’m in good shape now.

People say you should leave the Wanderers because they are a Championship League team. How do you respond?

The team was unlucky in the 2012 season. Several players, including myself, and core midfielders like Fabrice Muamba and Stewart Holden couldn’t play because of injuries. It is harder than I thought to advance to the Premier League, but I really want to lead the club to that league.

BY PARK RIN [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]

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