Korea aim to take Asian supremacy to grander stage
© AFP

Korea Republic captain Lee Changgeun is no ordinary goalkeeper. He feels comfortable when he races off his line to clear the danger outside the area, and he even enjoys the cut and thrust of the penalty shoot-out.

For Lee, playing as a quasi-sweeper or sending a long ball precisely to the feet of forwards is as important as stopping the opponents’ shots.

“Basically I like kicking the ball and I try to master every kind of kick that a goalkeeper can take,” Lee told FIFA.com in a recent interview. “I don’t want to clear the ball just to get away from danger, so I always try to connect the ball to my team-mates even when I’m under pressure.”

Connecting, or mingling with his team-mates is all the more important for Lee, not only because he wears the armband but because he has had relatively short time with them due to his club commitments. In fact, the Busan IPark goalkeeper is one of the seven professional players in the squad, who therefore missed the overseas training camp in Turkey last year as well as a domestic camp on Jeju island earlier this year.

“I couldn’t even join the team for the recent Toulon Tournament, just as I had missed the trainings before the Asian championship finals,” said Lee, who has nevertheless been a consistent performer since he began working with coach Lee Kwangjong at the age of 15. “I’ve trained with the players a bit older than me from the start and I could learn so many things from them.”

Hitting the big time
One of his ‘older’ peers who later became Lee’s role model is his Busan team-mate Lee Bumyoung, who came to prominence with the Bronze-winning heroics at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in London last year. As an understudy to Bumyoung, little Lee has learned a lot over the past 18 months at Busan, and recently made his professional debut in a 4-1 K-League win over Jeonbuk Motors at the start of June.

“I was much more nervous than when I was playing in the Asian championship,” recalled the 19-year-old, who was the hero for the Taeguk Warriors in the penalty shoot-out denying two spot-kicks against Iraq in the continental final. “To be frank, I don’t get nervous or under pressure at all during the penalties. I’ve been through those so many times since I played for my high school and I have good memories. I enjoy the shoot-out, actually.”

Even with this brave young man between the sticks, the reigning and 12-time Asian champions are still regarded by some as the weakest Korean side of all time. Although they proved the pundits wrong by retaining the continental crown last year, some of their key players including inspirational playmaker Moon Changjin are unavailable due to injury.

However, Lee has a different idea. “I don’t think we have a weak team,” he insisted. “And I don’t care about what others say, because we’re the ones who have to play the games out there.”

“Just like we struggled during the group stage of the Asian championship, we needed some time to understand each other and become a well-organised unit,” Lee added. “We might not have outstanding skills or world-class players. But we could build up our confidence in every match we played, and in the end we’ve become a united and formidable side.”