The countdown is well and truly on in Korea Republic, where the FIFA U-20 World Cup is kicking off exactly one year from today. The stars of tomorrow will descend on the country, with a generation of players who were in their infancy when the nation was joint-host of the FIFA World Cup™ in 2002 taking to the field dreaming of becoming senior World Cup stars of the future.
Lee Chungyong is a veteran of both tournaments, having had his first taste of a global international tournament at the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada, before starring at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, scoring against Argentina and Uruguay in South Africa. Despite his country finishing bottom of their group at Canada 2007, Lee’s memories of the tournament remain positive.
“Fans in Korea say that the 2007 U-20 World Cup was great,” Lee remembers. “We couldn’t get a good result, but everybody enjoyed watching us play that tournament. I think I most enjoyed my football at that time, because we played really good football. That U-20 World Cup was a good experience for me because, as I hadn’t played at U-17 level, it was my first World Cup.”
That maiden step-up to the global stage would see Lee and his team-mates face up against USA and Poland - who could count Jozy Altidore and Grzegorz Krychowiak respectively among their number - as well as the much-fancied Brazil.
It’s a chance for players. We have amazing fans in my country. For Korean football, it’s very good as well. I think that time of your life, at that age, it’s quite important for players.
“I played against Alexandre Pato, David Luiz and Marcelo, and they are big players now,” Lee smiled. “I heard that big teams were looking at them, but I was not thinking about that because we played better than them! I’m very proud to have played against them.”
A Pato brace consigned the Taeguk Warriors to a 3-2 loss, their only defeat at Canada 2007, with draws in the other two group matches consigning Cho Donghyun’s side to an early exit from the competition. Since then, the Koreans went on a run of reaching the knockout stages at consecutive U-20 World Cups before failing to qualify for New Zealand last year.
The 2017 hosts will perhaps be hoping to go further than in 1983, when they achieved their best-ever placing in Mexico, losing in the semi-finals to A Seleção and finishing fourth. What can visitors to the country expect next year, and what hopes for the hosts?
“It’s a chance for players,” Lee said. “We have amazing fans in my country. For Korean football, it’s very good as well. I think that time of your life, at that age, it’s quite important for players. Everybody is watching that World Cup, some good scouts will be there.”
The eyes of the world will certainly turn to the country this time next year when the hosts take to the field, looking to emulate Lee and Ki Sungyueng from that 2007 squad in graduating to the senior finals. One thing is for sure, they will have an ardent supporter in Lee, who will be keeping one eye on the class of 2017.