Lee sees nat’l team spot in Myanmar

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Lee sees nat’l team spot in Myanmar

Can Lee Yong-jae become another Cinderella for the national football team?

Korea, No. 58 in FIFA rankings, will start the second round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifiers against world No. 143 Myanmar at 9 p.m. Tuesday (Korean time) in Bangkok.

While a victory is widely expected - Korea hasn’t lost to the Southeast Asian country since December 1973 - there are still questions about which player will use the match to cement his spot on the national squad.

Lee, 24, is one of the players gunning for a permanent position. The striker is coming off an impressive national team debut last Thursday in a friendly against the United Arab Emirates, scoring the second goal of Korea’s 3-0 win.

Lee was a top football prospect as a young player, and expectations were high for his professional career. While he was with Pohang Jecheol Technical High School, the 186-centimeter (6-foot-1) forward joined Watford FC in England in 2007 after he was selected for the Korea Football Association’s overseas program.

Back then, Lee was even told by European scouters that he had potential to be like Spain’s top forward Fernando Torres. With Nam Tae-hee and Ji Dong-won, he also represented Korea in the Under-17 and Under-20 FIFA World Cup.

But Lee’s performances were unimpressive. He joined FC Nantes in the second division of the French league in 2009 but failed to become regular starter. He moved to third-division club Red Star FC in 2013 and then joined the Japanese second-division club V-Varen Nagasaki last year.

In the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, Lee was a regular striker for Korea’s gold-winning team, but fans criticized his performance because he collected just one goal in the entire tournament.

But Lee has had a fire lit under him by the rise of fellow 24-year-old striker Lee Jeong-hyeop. The Sangju Sangmu player, currently in the second division K-League Challenge, was a surprise pick from coach Stielike for the Asian Cup this January, but he scored two goals and played a pivotal role in Korea’s second-place finish.

After seeing how quickly Jeong-hyeop was able to go from the bottom to top, Lee began training harder than ever in preparation for his shot at the top. When coach Stielike visited Japan to watch him in a game against Okayama on May 3, Lee gave his all to impress the 60-year-old German - and managed to get a nod for the national squad for the World Cup qualifier against Myanmar.

Just like when Stielike picked Jeong-hyeop, fans wondered why Lee was on the squad. But after the friendly against the UAE, doubts are turning into expectations.

“There are people who criticize Lee Yong-jae, but they shouldn’t do that,” Stielike said after the UAE friendly.

Lee Yong-jae is likely to be a starting striker against Myanmar as Korea is expected to send a starting lineup similar to the one it used in the UAE friendly. But this doesn’t mean that he is ahead of Jeong-hyeop, who also scored against the UAE after replacing Lee Yong-jae.

“Footballers can’t be judged after one match,” Lee Yong-jae said after last weekend’s match. “I will work harder and harder.”

BY JOO KYUNG-DON, PARK RIN [joo.kyungdon@joongang.co.kr]
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