Having served his country at the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups™, Korea Republic left-back Lee Young-Pyo is now hoping to make it a hat-trick of call-ups to the global showcase, with just six weeks to go before the action begins in South Africa.
The 33-year-old defender opted to join Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal last summer and he has been proving just as effective in the heat of the Middle East as he was with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund in Europe’s more temperate climes. Indeed, not only did Al Hilal recently clinch the Saudi Arabian title in his first season, they are also safely through to the knockout phase of the AFC Champions League.
Lee’s immediate mission now will be to continue impressing in the weeks to come as Taeguk Warriors coach Huh Jung-Moo selects his 23-man squad to take on Argentina, Greece and Nigeria in Group B. As ambitious as ever, though, the full-back does not want to travel to South Africa simply to make up the numbers. He is already targeting a place in the Round of 16, as he explained to FIFA.com in this exclusive interview.
FIFA.com: Lee, how has life been in the Middle East? Are there many cultural differences in and away from the game compared to what you experienced in Europe?
Lee Young-Pyo: I didn’t know much about life, culture or football in Saudi Arabia before I came here. It’s been a very unique experience for me, both in and away from the game. The people here are incredibly welcoming.
Seol Ki-Hyeon and Lee Chun-Soo have both tried their luck in Saudi Arabia, with Al Hilal and Al Nasr respectively, but you are the only Korea Republic player to have really made your mark in the country. Why do you think that is?
My colleagues Seol and Lee have both demonstrated great ability. I don’t know what’s gone right for me especially, but I always try to give the best of myself in every match.
You recently scored your first goal for Al Hilal, which proved to be the winner against United Arab Emirates side Al Ahli in the Champions League. How did it feel to open your account for the club?
I didn’t want us to get a draw against Al Ahli because it was crucial for us to win the match so that we could top our group and get a home game in the last 16. I’m happy to have scored that goal, but the most important thing as far as I’m concerned is that we got those three decisive points.
You left Korea Republic club side Anyang in 2003 to join PSV Eindhoven and you soon settled in Europe. What was the key to your quick adaptation?
I’d dreamed about playing in Europe so that I could learn the European game since I was a child. I think the main reason for my quick adaptation was my desire to learn.
What is your most cherished memory of taking part in a FIFA World Cup and what is your favourite memory from your career in general?
Naturally, it’s the play-off for third place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. I still can’t believe that the South Korean national team made it to the semi-finals and that we knocked out such big sides as Portugal, Italy and Spain. It’s the greatest memory of my entire life.
Turning to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, what do you make of your rivals in Group B and how do you rate your chances?
There will be no easy teams at the World Cup. I can’t say we’re pleased with the draw, but we accept it. It’s difficult to rate our chances, but we can get wins against Greece and Nigeria. We have to qualify for the second round – that’s our objective for this World Cup.
Korea Republic’s first match will be against Greece. How important will it be to take maximum points in that game before facing Argentina?
For me, that match against Greece will be the most important game of all in the group stage, because if we can win it we’ll be in better shape to take on Argentina and Nigeria.
You were a key player in the side that finished fourth at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Do you think Korea Republic can match that feat this time around?
Although we never got past the group stage before or since, we’re just concentrating on qualifying for the second round. We don’t want to think about anything else.
The Korea Republic teams at both the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups were led by Dutch coaches. This time around, South Korean coach Huh Jung-Moo will be pulling the strings. Will he be able to move the side beyond its Dutch influences?
Definitely. We’ve picked up plenty of victories with him over the last two years. I also think that South Korean football has evolved enormously during those two years. The national team has a much better understanding of the World Cup and modern football in general. All the players in the team have lots of respect for the current coach and we have a very good relationship with him.
You have won over 100 caps for Korea Republic. Are you considering retirement?
It’s not time to ask that question yet, at least as far as I’m concerned. So far I’ve played something like 111 international matches and I’ve been in the Korea Republic team since 1999. My 100th match came against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh last year, during the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. I’m proud of myself because we won that day. I have very good memories of that game.
How far do you think an Asian side could go in South Africa?
I think it will be very difficult for the Asian teams to reach the latter stages of this tournament. Having said that, the world will see how much progress Asia’s representatives in this World Cup have made.
You’ve taken part in various major competitions, such as the FIFA World Cup, the FIFA Confederations Cup and the AFC Asian Cup. What have you learned from that experience?
I’ve learned quite a lot from my participation in those tournaments. The experience has taught me to remain cool no matter how well or badly things are going. But, above all, I’ve learned to enjoy the game, because that’s the only true path to victory.