Tag Archives: Soccer

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Croatia Seeks to Naturalize Korean Soccer Player for Its National Team

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han
steve@iamkoream.com

In the past, South Korea sought granting citizenship to imported foreign players to imported foreign players in order to improve its national soccer team. However, due to Korea’s strong sense of ethnic nationalism, the country opted not to naturalize these foreign athletes each time it faced overwhelming public opposition.

In the case of Korean soccer player Chung Woon, the tables have turned.

Croatia, a country with a national soccer team that is ranked 19th in the world (Korea is ranked 69th) by FIFA, is currently attempting to naturalize Chung after the 25-year-old’s impressive two-year stint in its top-flight professional soccer league.

“Croatia’s soccer federation made an offer to Chung to obtain citizenship,” said the player’s agent, Lee Gyeong-won, according to South Korean newspaper Ilgan Sports. “Talks have already taken place to make Chung a member of the Croatian national team. Discussions are already 90 percent complete.”

If the naturalization is processed, Chung would become the first South Korean national to represent a country aside from his birthplace in international soccer.

With Croatia vying for its fourth consecutive qualification for the 2016 European Championship, the country’s soccer federation president Davor Suker—whose legendary playing career includes winning the European title with Real Madrid in 1998 and taking Croatia to the World Cup semifinals—has publicly declared his interest in helping Chung become eligible in representing Croatia.

“It didn’t make any sense to me at first,” Chung said of his reaction to the Croatian national team’s offer, according to a recent interview with Ilgan Sports. “It’s not an easy decision to give up on my own roots to represent another country. But purely from a soccer standpoint, there are positives. No one in Korea ever recognized me, but I’ve been accepted in Croatia. So I’m seriously considering the offer.”

Chung signed a two-year contract with Croatia’s NK Istra in February 2013 as a free agent after he and his former Korean club, Ulsan Hyundai, reached an agreement to terminate his contract. The leftback out of Myongji University failed to make his mark in South Korea’s K-League as he was unable to make a single appearance during star-studded Ulsan’s historical season, in which the team won the Asian Champions League.

“I went to Croatia, thinking that if I don’t pan out there, I’d quit soccer,” Chung told WITHnews last year. “Looking back now, it was a huge gamble. But when I tell coaches in Croatia now that I’ve never played for Korea, they find it shocking, although I admit that I wasn’t very good when I played in Korea.”

Given the globalization of professional soccer, it’s difficult to determine whether South Korea’s K-League or the Prva HNL of Croatia is of higher quality. That in turn makes it even harder to objectively gauge the legitimacy of Chung’s recent success in Europe after his failure back home. In January of last year, the International Federation of Soccer History and Statistics ranked the K-League as the 23rd strongest league in the world ahead of the Prva HNL, which was ranked at 32nd. However, the Croatian clubs have convincingly outperformed their Korean counterparts at producing top-notched players.

While the K-League’s biggest talents in recent years include Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong, who have gone on to establish respectable careers in the globally renowned English Premier League, they are still conceivably low on the totem pole of international soccer’s premier players, especially compared to the likes of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic—players who have won titles for distinguished European powerhouses, such as Real Madrid of Spain and Germany’s Bayern Munich, after they came out of the Prva HNL.

In a league that has developed some of Europe’s finest players, Chung has been earmarked as a starter for Istra and made over 50 appearances for the club in the last two and a half seasons. He quickly developed a reputation of an all-hustle, defensive stalwart and this past week, signed a three-year contract with RNK Split, one of Croatia’s more glamorous clubs.

After Chung’s quest for Croatian citizenship was publicized back home, critics accused him of merely trying to switch allegiance in an effort to dodge South Korea’s compulsory two-year military service, which Chung would have to complete before turning 30. But Chung insists that he would willingly give up the chance to represent his newly-adopted country if he could earn a call-up to the Korean national team in the near future.

“I have no intention of avoiding the military service,” Chung said in the recent Ilgan Sports interview. “I would have no reason to become Croatian if the Korean national team ever selects me. But in Croatia, people think it should be a no-brainer for me to accept the offer and take the citizenship.”

Whether Chung deserves Korean national team’s selection is still debatable. Korea already possesses a plethora of talented leftbacks, namely Kim Jin-su, Park Joo-ho and Yun Suk-young. Kim and Park play professionally for Hoffenheim and Mainz, respectively, in German Bundesliga, which is touted as one of the world’s best leagues. Both athletes also played a prominent role in leading Korea to a gold medal at the Asian Games last year. In addition, Yun is an emerging leftback for the English Premier League’s Queens Park Rangers.

“It’s something I’ll have to think about over time,” Chung, who has never represented Korea beyond the youth national team level, said about becoming Croatian. “It’ll be a decision that could change my life. It’s definitely not an easy decision.”

Featured image courtesy of WITHnews

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5 Things to Know about Team Korea before the 2015 Asian Cup

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han
steve.han@msn.com

Last summer, fans threw a barrage of yeot candy at the Korean national soccer team players with a sign that read, “Korean soccer is dead!” when they returned home after failing to win a game at the World Cup for the first time in 16 years.

So much for pronouncing death. Only six months after the yeot-throwing incident, expectations for the Korean players ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia have been raised for the team to win a continental title for the first time in 55 years. Korea will play against Oman in its first match of the quadrennial tournament on Saturday, Jan. 10 at 4 p.m. PT.

The biggest question for South Korea is whether or not it can prove that its team has been reinvigorated by its newly-appointed German head coach, Uli Stielike, who replaced Hong Myung-bo after the World Cup.

Here are five things you might find interesting before the big tournament kicks off this weekend. You can view the full schedule of the month-long tournament here.

1. Son Heung-min has become the face of Korean soccer.

Son, who plays professionally for Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen, is arguably the most prolific goalscorer Korean soccer has seen outside of the legendary Cha Bum-keun from the 1980s. Still only 22, Son has played in Germany for seven years now, scoring over 10 goals in each of the past three seasons. He also speaks fluent German, which allows him to communicate freely with Stielike without an interpreter.

The trust Stielike has placed in Son is so profound that in light of South Korea’s top strikers’ injuries, the coach will likely opt for a strikerless formation to give Son more space in front of goal when he drifts from his usual left-winger position.

2. While Son is Korea’s most exciting player, Ki Sung-yueng may be the most important one.

A scorer up front, such as Son, could be a game-changer, but that’s only if the players behind him put in their best efforts to create winnable situations. The lynchpin of South Korea’s midfield is Ki Sung-yueng, who became one of English Premier League’s upper-echelon midfielders at Swansea City this season and earned the captain’s armband for his country just before the Asian Cup.

While the 25-year-old’s intricate passing has always been top notch, it’s his defensive intensity in midfield that has improved leaps and bounds this season. He is currently averaging 1.7 tackles and 2.5 interceptions per game for Swansea.

Ki’s most prized asset is his wide passing range, but he can also go for goals with thunderous long shots and can drop deep to play as an additional defender at the back.

3. The decline of former captain Koo Ja-cheol is a major concern.

Along with Son, Koo Ja-cheol is another South Korean star player based in Germany. However, the Asian Cup’s reigning scoring champion has been on a steady decline since he captained Korea’s under-23 national team to a dazzling bronze medal finish at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The criticism has been that Koo as an attacking midfielder–a position that requires fast-thinking and well-timed passes–has formed a detrimental habit of holding on to the ball for too long before supplying it to his teammates. Koo’s pass completion rate this season at MSV Mainz of Germany is a disappointing 76.1%.

His struggle in Korea’s latest exhibition game against Saudi Arabia last week was so visible that Stielike stripped him of his captaincy, just three days before the start of the Asian Cup. Perhaps a more suitable position for Koo would be a striker, a role with the license to hold the ball for longer stretches and at a greater frequency.

4. Japan and Iran are Korea’s biggest obstacles en route to glory.

If South Korea lives up to the expectations and breezes through the group stages and the quarterfinals, it will most likely face one of its two fiercest rivals, Japan or Iran, in the semifinals. For decades, Koreans have won their fair share of battles against their hated rivals, but both countries have become something of a nemesis for the national team in recent years.

Korea has failed to beat Japan and Iran in its last four and three games with them, respectively. In addition, Korea’s last win against Iran was in 2011, and it hasn’t defeated Japan since 2010. That tide will have to turn for Korea to end its half-a-century-long trophy drought at the Asian Cup.

5. At last, the return of the “Chaminator” could put Korea over the top.

Cha Du-ri, nicknamed the “Chaminator” by the Korean media for his exhilarating physical prowess, has been a crowd favorite among Korean soccer fans throughout his 15-year career with the national team.

One of Korea’s most glaring shortcomings at last summer’s World Cup was its inability to get the lateral defenders to join the attack, as shockingly evidenced by left and right fullbacks Yun Suk-young and Lee Yong’s combined 0% cross completion rate. Cha Du-ri was omitted from the final roster for the World Cup in Brazil, where he was remembered as the broadcaster who famously cried on national television while apologizing to his teammates for “not being good enough to help them” after Korea lost 4-2 to Algeria.

The 34-year-old, who has since returned to the national team, announced that he will retire from international soccer at the end of the Asian Cup. For all his defensive frailties, Cha’s ability to push forward may give Korea an additional dimension it needs to finally win the Asian Cup, which would be a perfect ending to the veteran’s career.

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Featured photo courtesy of GameMeca

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Mixed Korean Athlete Joins Korea’s National Soccer Team

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han
steve@iamkoream.com

South Korea’s national soccer team has invited Kang Su-il to its training camp, which starts next week, making the 27-year-old forward only the second multiethnic soccer player in history to represent the country that still remains largely homogenous.

Before Kang, defender Jang Dae-il, whose father is of Brittish descent, represented South Korea at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Kang was born in Dongducheon, South Korea in 1987 under a Korean mother, Kang Sun-nam, and a black American GI father. His father left the family when his son was still an infant, leaving Kang to grow up without ever knowing his birth father. His moderate, but unlikely success in professional soccer was well publicized in South Korea when he became the Most Valuable Player in the K-League’s reserves league, a now-defunct competition that was designed to develop young players, while playing for Incheon United in 2008.

During his childhood, Kang said he had to persistently fight through racial discrimination from his peers while his mother worked laboring jobs to raise her only son. When Kang’s mother suffered a serious back injury in 2007, he had to drop out of Sangji University just six months after he started his freshmen year to make ends meet.

After dropping out of school, Kang took a three-week open tryout at Incheon United out of desperation and eventually signed his first professional contract. His annual salary at the time was a meager $10,000.

“Growing up, I never understood why having a different skin color gave a reason to other people to curse at me,” Kang told the JoongAng Daily in 2008. “People are supposed to be different. It’s only right to accept the differences.”

Incheon United signed Kang to a long-term deal after his impressive display in the reserves league, but Kang failed to live up to the expectations in the K-League as he scored just 13 goals in five seasons between 2009 and 2013. To make matters worse, he reached an all-time low last year after he scored just one goal in 27 games and was arrested for allegedly beating a man on the street after drinking.

But Kang got his second chance from Hwang Sun-hong, South Korea’s legendary striker of the past and now the coach of Pohang Steelers, who signed him on a loan deal before this past season. Hwang, who led the Steelers to a league title last year, mentored Kang and helped him realize his potential. Inspired by his coach, the athletic forward went on to score a career-high seven goals in all competitions and earned his first ever call-up to the national team ahead of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, which takes place next month.

“Until this past season, if I couldn’t score and my team lost, I just let it get past me too easily,” Kang said in a recent interview with Naver Sports. “But in Pohang, I started to play in games where my team was winning because of my goals. After experiencing that, I started to feel guilty when I couldn’t help my team win. Being here changed me entirely and helped me become more responsible as a professional athlete. So once that thought process changed, even my behavior off the field changed, too.”

Although a national team call-up is an honor for any soccer player, Kang realizes that the upcoming training camp is merely a testing ground for the players in the K-League who would have to compete against those playing professionally in Europe for a chance to represent Korea at major international competitions, such as the World Cup.

Kang acknowledged that becoming a mainstay for the national team will be the toughest challenge of his career, but said he is desperate to make his mark to pave the way for future generations of mixed race Korean athletes and to give hopes to the children in the multiethnic Korean community.

“I’ve been inviting multiethnic Korean kids to my games consistently,” Kang said. “I don’t want them to feel discouraged. I would love for them to dream and have hopes through me. I want them to smile as proud members within the Korean society. So I want them and my mother to see me represent Korea in an international game. I’m curious to find out how it would feel when I wear Korea’s red jersey and have my right hand over my heart in front of the Korean flag before a game. That’s something I’ve always dreamed of.”

Photo courtesy of Chosun.com

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3 Standout Players For Korean Soccer Team After Head Coach Stielike’s Debut

by STEVE HAN

Uli Stielike, head coach of the South Korean men’s national soccer team, made his debut in a pair of friendly matches over the last four days. Stielike’s Korea got off to a bright start with a dominant 2-0 win over Paraguay last Friday, but was humbled by World Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica on Tuesday after losing 3-1.

It’s still too early to judge, however. The purpose of friendlies is to identify problems rather than proposing solutions. Also, several players stood out in the last two games and gave their German coach a platform to build a stronger team with the Asian Cup coming up in three months. Here are three Korean players to look out for as Stielike made his coaching debut.

Nam Tae-hee. I interviewed Nam, who now plays professionally in Qatar, while he was still playing in France in February of 2011. Nam told me at the time that he feels more comfortable playing in his natural position in the middle, but he has since been played out of position on the right wing for the last three years for Korea. Stielike, who was Nam’s next-door neighbor from 2012 to earlier this year in Qatar, started the midfielder in his natural position in both matches. The result? Nam scored to extend Korea’s lead in its 2-0 over Paraguay and played a key role with a cheeky dummy during the setup to his only team’s goal against Costa Rica. The challenge now for Nam is to sustain the same level of play when Korea’s regular starting midfielder Koo Ja-cheol returns from injury.

Lee Chung-yong. A key player for Korea since the late 2000s, Lee’s struggle at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this summer was seen as one of the biggest reasons for Korea’s early exit. Under Stielike, however, Lee revived his signature weaving runs through the opposing defense and telling passes to create goalscoring opportunities for his teammates. The 26-year-old is no longer the explosive dribbler after recovering from a double fracture in his right leg in 2012. But he is showing maturity in his play by contributing on defense as well as getting involved in Korea’s attacking build up by staying tucked into the central areas of the midfield. He may not be the risk-taking speedster down the wings he once was, but he now seems more mature and consolidated in his play with his all-around game.

Kim Seung-gyu. During the 2014 World Cup, we saw how exceptional goalkeeping could be the difference-maker. Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, for example, was one of his team’s best players as it advanced to the quarterfinals, and Manuel Neuer of eventual champion Germany redefined the role of a goalkeeper by playing as an auxiliary defender when his back line positioned itself high up the field. Kim, Korea’s 24-year-old shot stopper who is coming off an excellent performance at the Asian Games, which Korea won the gold medal for the first time since 1986, has displayed his quickness and reaction skills to show that he may be the quality starting goalkeeper this team has lacked since former captain Lee Woon-jae retired.

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SKorea Beats NKorea With Last Kick and Claims Asian Games Gold Medal

by STEVE HAN

South Korean under-23 men’s soccer team scored a dramatic last-minute goal in the gold medal game of the Asian Games’ soccer tournament for a 1-0 win over North Korea, marking the craziest finish to a final of the quadrennial event that has been held since 1951.

The two Koreas remained scoreless in the 90-minute regulation and in the 30 minutes of extra time. On a corner kick during the added one-minute time before the potential penalty shoot-out, rightback Rim Chang-woo blasted a strong shot past several opposing players after forward Lee Yong-jae’s shot was blocked by an arm of Ri Yong-jik, one of North Korea’s many defenders who swarmed their goal to desperately stop what was bound to be the last kick of the game.

North Korea’s head coach Yun Jong-su and his coaching staff were livid as they argued to the referee that South Korea’s goal should be disallowed since Ri’s hand ball offense came before Rim’s game-winning shot and that a penalty kick must be given instead. However, referee Abdullah Dor Mohammad Balideh explained that he simply used the advantage clause, a unique rule in soccer which allows the referee to not to call an obvious foul if stopping the play causes greater harm to the team that would have been fouled.

After the game, South Korea’s head coach Lee Gwang-jong credited his players, whose compulsory two-year military service is now exempted with the win, for South Korea’s first Asian Games’ gold medal in men’s soccer in 28 years.

“We played a really fun game against North Korea,” Lee said. “The hard work for our first gold medal in 28 years was all done by the players. They really played hard for it.”

Yun, who led North Korea to its first Asian Games final in men’s soccer since 1978, praised his players for playing through fatigue for two games in just three days, both of which went to extra time. However, he contended that the loss is unjust due to “questionable” refereeing.

“I thank my players,” Yun said. “But I said this even before the game. In our previous game versus Iraq, one of our key players was sent off [and became ineligible to play in the final]. Today, the linesman raised the flag [just before South Korea’s goal] and confused our players. Refereeing has to be fair. It shouldn’t accommodate the home team. I ask you reporters whether today’s refereeing was fair.”

Going into the tournament, host team South Korea’s 20-man roster was considered as one of the weakest group of players it has fielded at the Asian Games. Son Heung-min, South Korean soccer’s star forward, was forced to pull out of the team after his German club Bayer Leverkusen insisted that it cannot afford to lose the 22-year-old for three weeks during the German Bundesliga season.

Yun Il-lok, one of the brightest young prospects in Korea’s domestic K-League, was expected to fill the void for Son, but he was also ruled out of the tournament after just two games with a torn knee ligament. Another star forward Kim Shin-wook was called up as one of the three overage players before he picked up an injury of his own in the second game and remained sidelined throughout the tournament until the last 12 minutes of the gold medal game.

Despite the absence of its key offensive players, South Korea clawed its way to winning the gold medal by playing stingy defense that didn’t concede a single goal in all seven of the team’s games.

But the real gem of the tournament for South Korea may just be the goalscorer Rim, whose menacing runs up and down the right wing gave the team’s lethargic offense a much needed spark. The 22-year-old lateral defender, who is currently playing in Korea’s second division team Daejon Citizen, opened the scoring for South Korea in this tournament by heading home the go-ahead goal in the first game against Malaysia and against North Korea. He notched the last goal that gave him and his team the gold medal.

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SKorea And NKorea To Square Off In Asian Games Soccer Final

by STEVE HAN

South Korea edged out its rival Japan and weathered the storm against dark horse Thailand, reaching the men’s soccer finals at the Asian Games for the first time in 28 years.

Awaiting the South Koreans in the finals is their arch-rival: North Korea.

The two Koreas defeated Thailand and Iraq, respectively, to reach the finals for the first time in decades. Just hours after North Korea’s dramatic 1-0 win over Iraq in overtime, South Korea cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory against Thailand to set up the “all Korea final,” which will take place at Incheon’s Munhak Stadium on Thursday.

The North Korean soccer team has served two devastating losses to South Korea in recent weeks. Its under-16 boys came from behind to beat South Korea 2-1 in the final match of the 2014 Under-16 Asian Championships. On Monday, its women’s national team also eliminated South Korea in the semifinals of the Asian Games.

South Korea is desperately relying on the recovery of its injured players for the upcoming 2014 Asian Games soccer final. The 6-foot-5 forward Kim Shin-wook sprained his ankle in the second game of the tournament and missed four straight games since then. Leftback Kim Jin-su, who plays professionally for Hoffenheim of Germany, also left the semifinal game in the second half, experiencing discomfort in his left.

Meanwhile, the challenge for North Korea is regaining fitness after the extra 30 minutes of overtime they faced in the semifinal against Iraq in just two days. Known for their tireless work ethic and speed on the attack, North Korea’s key player is forward Pak Kwang-ryong, who plays professionally for Swiss soccer’s powerhouse FC Basel.

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Japan Soccer Coach Wants To “Take Asian Games Away From Korea On Their Own Turf”

by STEVE HAN

South Korean under-23 men’s soccer team is vying for a gold medal at the Asian Games for the first time in 28 years, but it will have to overcome arch rival Japan in the quarterfinal match on Sunday to have a shot at achieving the ultimate goal in Incheon next week.

Host nation South Korea advanced to the quarterfinals after beating Hong Kong 3-0 on Thursday in the round of 16. Led by head coach Lee Kwang-jong, the team won all four matches in the tournament so far and has yet to concede a goal. But Japan will pose the biggest threat for the Korea, which hasn’t faced serious competition thus far as its opponents included minnows such as Laos and Malaysia.

“I wanted to play South Korea here,” Japan head coach Makoto Teguramori told Kyodo News. “It doesn’t get any better than this. I mean, imagine what it would be like if Japan took the tournament away from Korea on their own turf. I can sense how badly Korea want to win this competition … We’ve got to be prepared mentally. We cannot allow ourselves to get beaten mentally.”

Since 2002, teams are only allowed to include players younger than 23 for men’s soccer at the Asian Games. FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, levies the age cap on international tournaments sanctioned by organizations other than itself (including the Summer Olympic Games) as part of its plan to make the World Cup the most glamorous soccer event in the world. As a compromise, men’s soccer teams at both the Asian Games and the Olympics, both organized by the IOC, can have up to three players over 23.

Although the age cap is at 23, the entire Japanese roster consists of players aged 21 or younger as Teguramori wants the less heralded Asian Games as something of a dress rehearsal for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Japan also played at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China with its under-21 team, consisting of players who would still be young enough to satisfy the age limit at the Olympics in 2012, and still impressively managed to win the competition.

Unlike Japan, no player in South Korea’s roster is younger than 22. Additionally, head coach Lee further emphasized his “win now” mentality by even utilizing all three of his over-aged player slots with those who represented Korea’s senior national team at this past summer’s World Cup in Brazil. Taking the all-or-nothing approach at the expense of drawing a larger picture for the bigger tournament in the Olympics remains a hotly debated topic for Korean soccer fans.

However, such a decision for the Koreans is also the most suitable way to accommodate their most talented players from obtaining military exemption, which is granted to all of South Korea’s gold medalists at the Asian Games. Many believe that the country’s 21-month compulsory military service for all able-bodied male citizens is detrimental to the development of young athletes whose careers are generally short-lived compared to other professions.

Image courtesy of KPPA

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Lee Seung-Woo Held By NKorea, But Still Wins Tournament MVP And Scoring Title

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.”