Tuesday’s Group A match between France and Korea Republic will be a special occasion for forward Lee Yong-Jae, who, as fate would have it, plays his club football for French side Nantes.
Anxious to face his adopted country, the tall striker is hoping the calf strain he picked up in the closing stages of Korea Republic’s group opener against Mail does not spoil his day.
“It’s a game I really want to play because they’re a very strong and technical team and I love playing against sides like that,” he said. “There’s also the fact that Nantes is my adopted home, which will make it very special to play against them. I’m very motivated.”
An easy-going 20-year-old with reddish hair, Lee moved to western France two years ago and has had to grow accustomed to living on his own, half a world away from his family in Cheonan, a city 80km south of Seoul.
Despite the obstacles, he is enjoying the experience: “I live a very routine life in Nantes and I focus only on my football. I go training and I rest when I have to. Being away from home means there aren’t really any distractions for me, which is good for my career.”
Though he has some contact with two other Koreans plying their trade in France (Nam Tae-Hee of Valenciennes and Song Jin-Hyung of Tours), Lee admits to finding his solitary life hard at times, and speaks to his family every day. And since his arrival in Colombia he has been giving his mother daily updates.
“She was happy with the win against Mali, but she was also very worried to see me going off on a stretcher,” he explained. “I tried to reassure her and tell her that’s normal when you’re a professional footballer. She’s very happy to see me trying my luck in Europe but also sad that I’m so far away. I miss her and she misses me too.”
It was at Nantes that Lee met two of the players forming part of the France squad in Colombia: Loic Nego, who has since left for Roma, and Lionel Carole, now with Benfica. “I haven’t spoken to them but I did give Lionel a wave at the hotel, from a distance.”
Full of praise for France
As Carole told FIFA.com, France should watch out for his former team-mate: “He’s a very good striker who’s always calling for the ball. He never stops and he’s very lively. I found him very easy to get on with, perhaps a little shy, but that was because he’d just arrived in France. I remember that he was a very good listener too. We’ll need to be on our guard and well organised to stop both him and his team-mates up front.”
Returning the compliments, Lee was full of praise for France, despite their false start against Colombia. “France had looked good right up until the opening goal,” he said of their 4-1 defeat to the hosts. “I said to myself, ‘That’s France!’. But the Colombians gradually made home advantage and the support of their fans count. Physically and technically they’re very strong and they ran away with the game. They’re both excellent teams, though.”
As respectful as he is of Les Bleuets, Lee would like nothing better than to get one over them on Tuesday, having gone into football to represent his country. “In 2002 I was only nine or ten and I’d never really taken much interest in football,” he explained. “And then I saw the Taeguk Warriors pull off that incredible performance at the World Cup and amaze the whole world. That was when I said that I wanted to do the same thing.”
An admirer of Fernando Torres, Lee is now living his dream in Colombia. “Deep down, I want to reach the final,” he said with his hand on heart before sending a message, in faltering French, to Korea Republic’s next opponents: “Good luck! But please take it easy against us.”