Lee Dong-Gook is, quite simply, a goal machine. The Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors striker is the all-time K-League top scorer with 121 goals in 287 matches, while he has also netted 28 goals in his 88 appearances for Korea Republic. But his professional career has been far from straightforward, with the player also known as the Lion King, wandering in and out of his home nation before finally settling down in Jeonju three years ago.
There, Lee has enjoyed a dramatic rebirth on the domestic stage by helping the Motors win their first ever championship in 2009, before repeating the feat last year. With his coach Choi Kang-Hee subsequently taking charge of the national team, the 32-year-old emerged as the front man to lead the Taeguk Warriors into the finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. FIFA.com caught up with Lee this week, to hear about his thoughts on goals, miscues, records and what the future may hold.
FIFA.com: Among the goals you have scored in the K-League, which one do you still remember most vividly?
Lee Dong-Gook: That’s the first goal in my professional career, which I scored in my third game for Pohang Steelers. I can still remember it because I was up against star players on the stage where I’d dreamt of playing.
121 goals and still counting, what do you want to achieve from here?
I’d like to score as many goals as possible. It’s not just about breaking records, but I need to score to help my team win games. When you see some other players in foreign countries they even score 40 or 50 goals in a season, so my record may look humble. But I think every goal I score counts because it can lead my side to winning matches. I feel very proud of it, and I will try to score many goals before I retire.
After a long slump you finally rediscovered your form at Jeonbuk. How have you made yourself at home there?
I’ve got wonderful team-mates and I’m also satisfied with everything here. Everyone here loves football, and the fans create a wonderful atmosphere at the stadium. It’s just amazing. I’m happy when I play here and I think it’s natural that you can notice it when you see me play.
You’re just a handful of matches away from making one hundred appearances for Korea Republic. Are you aware of it?
I don’t really care about records, and I haven’t thought about it.
I’ve always scored in every tournament I took part in, but not in the World Cup. So I’d like to score if I can, and help my side win.
To see your excellent track record in your professional career, it seems unfortunate that you have not performed well in FIFA World Cups. What do you think of your chances at Brazil 2014?
At the moment I’m not thinking about the finals, because we still have to go through so many matches in the qualifying round. I don’t think about anything else ahead of what I’ve got to do right now. We’ve got important games to play and there’s no point in talking about the finals already. That said, I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to score in the finals. I’ve always scored in every tournament I took part in, but not in the World Cup. So I’d like to score if I can, and help my side win.
What would be your worst miscue of your life?
In the World Cup in South Africa, I had a great chance to equalise against Uruguay in the Round of 16. That was exactly one of the situations I’d imagined, but I just couldn’t hit the ball well and I was disappointed. But I’m always optimistic and positive – after such a terrible mistake, I try to forget about everything and start all over again.
After having some unsuccessful stints in Germany and England earlier in your career, do you still have ambitions of playing abroad?
To be frank, I’m getting a bit too old for another challenge, and it’s not a matter I can decide on my own. Besides, I don’t think I can possibly get any good offer at the moment.
Coach Choi Kang-Hee has repeatedly said that he is leaving the national team after the qualifiers, because he is not good enough for the tournament proper. Would you agree with that?
The coach must have thought about it much more than I haved, and he’s thought of great ideas down the years. If that’s his decision, I think that’s best for him and I’m not in a position to say something about it. After the qualifying is over he will make a choice, and as a player I respect his decision.
You turn 33 this Sunday, and you have become one of the most seasoned veterans in Korea Republic. How do you feel?
Well, I’ve heard something like that ten years ago, when 33-year-olds were regarded as veterans. Human life has been prolonged to over one hundred years, but I wonder why footballers should still think about retiring around that age. I think I can still go on until the fans tell me to stop [laughs], but I want to carry on unless I can’t stand it physically. That said, I’m still too young to talk about retiring already.
So are you having your finest hour now?
I think I still have room for improvement. It’s not appropriate for a footballer to say when his finest hour is, but he should always prepare for it by maintaining his best form and conditions. Even when I won the golden boot and the MVP awards in 2009, it wasn’t down to my own abilities but I had wonderful support from my team-mates. Whether or not I’m having my best period, well, you’ll find out when you see me play on the pitch.