Lee Seung-woo is ready to spend some more time on the pitch
Lee Seung-woo signed with K League 1 club Suwon FC on Dec. 3 last year, returning to Korea after spending 11 years playing overseas.
Lee's return followed abortive spells in Portugal, Belgian, Italy and Spain, but the young forward has never played in Korea.
Suwon announced on Dec. 3 that Lee has joined the club based in his hometown of Suwon, Gyeonggi, citing his experience and "youthful spirit" and an ongoing bid to upgrade their offense as the main reasons for the former top prospect's recruitment.
Lee has been on the lookout for a new deal since Belgian club Sint-Truiden announced on Nov. 23 last year that the 23-year-old's contract with the club had been terminated by "mutual agreement."
"Honestly, I came back to Korea feeling like there is no place to hide," Lee told the JoongAng Ilbo in a recent interview.
"But I am grateful for Suwon fans who encouraged me to live up to my potential with the club in K League."
Lee is a product of the Barcelona football academy and was once considered a footballing prodigy touted as the "Korean Messi."
But despite a strong youth career — Lee appeared for Korean youth teams across a number of tournament and was MVP of the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship — Lee's transition to the adult game has not been smooth.
After years in the Barcelona academy, the closest Lee got to the top flight was a single appearance with the B team before he moved to Hellas Verona on a four year deal.
That move made Lee one of the only Koreans to make it to Italy's Serie A, but again it was short lived. In two years with Verona, Lee made 37 appearances, scoring only twice.
"I was happy playing back in Verona," said Lee. "But my time on the pitch fluctuated every time a different coach took the helm. I had only joined the club under the impression that they would give me enough time on the pitch.
"I almost went crazy not knowing what the problem was. I asked the head coach, manager and staff what the problem was many times, but they gave me vague answers like that it was a strategic decision or that it was a team decision."
Lee doesn't think his performance on the pitch was the issue.
"I can confidently say that my form wasn't the problem," Lee said. "Even my teammates were furious about the fact that they couldn't play with me on the pitch."
In 2019, Lee joined Belgian side Sint-Truiden. In Belgium, he was given even fewer opportunities, making his debut four months after he joined the club. Lee spent most of this year on loan to Portuguese side Portimonense, where he made just six appearances.
Lee has also struggled at the international level. Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Lee was dropped from the U-23 squad because of his disappointing performance in friendlies ahead of the competition.
Lee's arrival in the K League is in line with expectations that his departure from Sint-Truiden would see him step back from European football and concentrate on improving his game in a comparatively less competitive league.
"I received many offers from Japan or the United States, some were even under better conditions," said Lee.
"But after contemplation, I decided that what I needed now wasn't money, but to be able to play on the pitch. I considered the club's strategy, colleagues and what position I would play."
Suwon finished the 2021 season in fifth place in the K League after winning their final game of the season against the Suwon Samsung Bluewings 2-0 on Dec. 5.
Suwon started their winter training on Monday in Seogwipo, Jeju. Lee says that Suwon head coach Kim Do-kyun had told him to be at 80 percent fitness ahead of their winter training.
"I think I'm pretty much ready," said Lee. "But I won't act so proud. I will reach peak condition with coach Kim and my colleagues."
BY YUN SO-HYANG, SONG JI-HOON [email@example.com]