Lee Seung-woo’s redemption starts to turn heads
When Lee Seung-woo returned to Korea last year with his European career in tatters, it looked like that might be it for the 24-year-old once considered one of Korea’s biggest footballing prospects. But like a true prodigal son, Lee's performance has significantly improved since his arrival in Suwon and suddenly a return to a foreign league doesn't seem so unfeasible.
Lee returned to Korea in November last year after his contract with Belgian club Sint-Truiden was terminated, leaving him without a European club for the first time since he was 12 years old. On Dec. 3 he signed with K League club Suwon FC, joining the domestic league for the first time in his career with his own hometown team.
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.
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 last year on loan to Portuguese side Portimonense, where he made just six appearances.
Lee 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.
So when Lee returned to Suwon in December last year he had a lot to prove. While he still has plenty of fans who fondly remember the confident young teenager from a decade ago, the string of disappointments that was his European career and his playing style left Lee open to criticism that he had found fame too early and become brash and overconfident in his abilities.
Arriving in Suwon, Lee was frank in interviews, saying he returned to Korea because he needed to spend more time on the pitch, not continue chasing fame.
"I decided that what I needed now wasn't money, but to be able to play on the pitch," Lee said, describing his decision to join Suwon in a January interview. "I considered the club's strategy, colleagues and what position I would play.
"I came back to Korea feeling like there's no place to hide. I won't act so proud. I will reach peak condition with coach Kim [Do-kyun] and my colleagues."
Lee went on to do exactly that.
In 18 games with Suwon so far this season, Lee has scored eight goals and picked up two assists. Four of those goals came in the last four games, suggesting that the young player is working hard on improving his game this season.
Lee's most recent goal, against the Pohang Steelers on June 21, helped to push him back into the international spotlight.
The goal came from a Suwon corner that was headed across the box, where Lee turned on the spot to volley it straight into the top right corner of the goal. Lee was running away from the goal at the time to reach the ball, forcing him to spin a full 180 degrees to hammer the ball through the busy box and into the net.
The K League tweeted a clip of the goal, suggesting FIFA consider it for the Puskas Award, an annual award given to the scorer of the best goal in the world. FIFA also shared the clip and the accolades started to roll in.
European media have also started paying attention again. In an article titled "The revival of Seung-woo Lee" on Monday, Sport.es said Lee had "considerably improved" his level of play and was expected to make a return to the Korean national team.
After discussing his entire career at length, the Spanish report said that Lee has already received some offers from European clubs and is expected to make a return to European football now that he has more experience and is better prepared.
Whether Lee will be on the move this summer remains unclear. As the K League season plays an opposing schedule to that of the European leagues, running from February to October rather than from August to May, Lee is expected to be busy in Suwon until long after the European transfer window has closed.
Were the right team to come calling, however, it's unlikely that Suwon would attempt to hold the young forward back.
BY JIM BULLEY [email@example.com]