This Sunday has long been marked in the diary of Korea Republic forward Lee Dong-Gook. After spending the past fortnight nursing a hamstring injury, the 31-year-old’s hopes of a second FIFA World Cup™ rely on the final decision of coach Huh Jung-Moo.
Lee, affectionately nicknamed the Lion King by the Korean faithful, strained a thigh muscle in a friendly against Ecuador on 16 May. After being forced to watch his team-mates outmanoeuvre Japan 2-0 in a recent warm-up, the Jeonbuk Motors hitman is also set to miss out on the team’s next fixture against Belarus in Kufstein, Austria on 30 May - the same day that Huh is expected to meet the medical team and physical trainers to determine Lee’s fate.
Even if Lee makes it onto the final 23-man roster, he may not feature in their opening game against Greece on 12 June, a scenario which Huh has predicted. “Dong Gook may not recover in time for our first match,” the Korea Republic coach stated recently. “But we have to be prepared for a situation where he will be available for the next game (against Argentina).”
Long agonising wait
Should Lee receive the nod, the 2010 FIFA World Cup will mark the end of a 12-year wait for his return to world football’s greatest stage. As one of the country’s most promising stars, the teenage Lee was a surprise inclusion in coach Cha Bum-Kun’s squad at France 1998, coming off the bench for Seo Jung-Won during the second half of their 5-0 capitulation against the Netherlands.
That match has proved to be his one and only appearance at the global showpiece to date. Despite finishing the 2000 AFC Asian Cup as the tournament top scorer with six goals, he failed to win over Guus Hiddink who excluded him from his Taeguk Warriors squad that stormed into the last four at Korea/Japan 2002. Four years later he did earn a berth in Dick Advocaat’s line-up having scored five times in eight qualifying matches, however a knee injury two months prior to the finals at Germany 2006 ended his dreams once again.
After a lacklustre two-year spell with Middlesbrough, he returned to the K-League in 2008 where he gradually rediscovered his goalscoring touch. Lee ran riot last season, scoring 20 goals in steering Jeonbuk Motors to their first league title which earned him the Most Valuable Player award. This year has seen him continue this prolific form for both club and country, propelling Jeonbuk through to the last eight in the AFC Champions League, as well as a goal in the 2-0 defeat of a full-strength Côte d’Ivoire.
His re-emergence as an ace striker didn’t go unnoticed by Huh who has shown unwavering faith in Lee even after his injury. “We heard his injury is not that serious and we will keep an eye on him until the official deadline to submit the roster to FIFA,” he told local press after keeping Lee in his 26-man provisional squad. “Lee is a player we must have for the team.”
While his adoring fans are waiting with bated breath to see him available to spearhead the attack alongside the likes of Park Chu-Young, Lee Keun-Ho or Ahn Jung-Hwan, Lee must first secure his place among the 23 men in preference to the in-form FC Seoul striker Lee Seung-Yeoul.