by STEVE HAN
There wasn’t much South Korean soccer prodigy Lee Seung-woo could’ve done. Three or more North Korean defenders surrounded the 16-year-old forward just about every time he got near the ball. Outnumbered upfront, he was kicked, pushed and harassed as North Korea scraped its way to an upset by beating South Korea 2-1 in the 2014 Asian Under-16 Championship final.
Despite the loss, South Korea still advances to next year’s FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Chile after its runners-up finish. Lee, who plays his club soccer at Spain’s renowned FC Barcelona, finished the tournament with both the Most Valuable Player and top scorer honors with five goals and four assists in five games.
“The important thing was to win,” said Lee, who joined Barcelona’s youth academy in 2011 after impressing its scouts at an international tournament in South Africa. “We lost, so I’m not happy about the MVP or the top scorer award. I was only able to play well because of the teachings from our coach and help from my teammates. I’m still young and have a lot to learn.”
Lee added, “Our next goal is to win the Under-17 World Cup next year. We have the ability to do it. We’ll do everything to win.”
South Korea had the lead at halftime after Choi Jae-young headed home Lee Sang-heon’s corner kick in the 33rd minute. Lee, spearheading South Korea’s attack, fought his way through traffic and created scoring chances on two occasions in the first half, but couldn’t beat North Korea’s goalkeeper Ri Chol-song. In the 15th minute, he dribbled past the North Korean defense from the left wing, but his shot was stopped by Ri. About three minutes later, he made a weaving run into the right side of the penalty area and drilled a strong shot that went straight to the shot stopper.
North Korea tied the game just four minutes into the second half when Han Kwang-song broke free of South Korea’s inattentive defending on a long ball into the box and scored an easy tap in. After 14 minutes, North Korea completed its comeback as Choe Song-hyok launched a strong shot into the top left corner near the right side of the box after South Korean wing-back Park Myeong-soo failed to clear the ball.
Before Choe’s game-winning goal for North Korea, Lee had a chance to put South Korea back on top as he made his trademark solo run into the attacking half and had only the goalkeeper to beat before Kim Wi-song grabbed him by the shoulder and brought him down. Lee pleaded to the referee for a red card, but the North Korean defender escaped with a yellow card.
The Asian U-16 Championships, which rarely gets much attention in South Korea, had become immensely popular this time around because of Lee’s impressive performances. Until the tournament, South Korean soccer fans had to settle for YouTube videos to see Lee displaying flashes of brilliance for Barcelona, but the teenager achieved something of a stardom by not only scoring goals, but by showcasing his ability to single-handedly dominate games with individual skills and an edgy demeanor.
When asked about what he thought of his nickname “Korean Lionel Messi” after the game, Lee answered, “It’s not up to me to determine if I play like Messi. To be called the ‘Little Messi’ or the ‘Korean Messi’ is an honor. But personally, I want to be the very first Lee Seung-woo.”