If there was one cause for Korea Republic's inconsistency after their fairytale run to the semi-final of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ Korea/Japan, it was a failure to transform the side.
For the past six years, five coaches have tried out countless youngsters but failed to find the right balance to revive the ageing Taeguk Warriors, who fell at the group stage of Germany 2006 before finishing third at the AFC Asian Cup last year. To make matters worse, their four veterans, including then captain Lee Woon-Jae, were banned from the national team for a year after a well-publicised incident during the continental championship.
The year has gone by, and the seasoned goalkeeper has returned to the national side in time for the South Africa 2010 qualifier against Saudi Arabia next week. The 35-year-old has been outstanding during this year, conceding just 27 goals in 37 games (0.73 goals per match) to help his club Suwon Samsung Bluewings win the regular season title earlier this month.
Despite his recent tendency to favour younger players, Korea Republic coach Huh Jung-Moo did not hesitate to call up the man who is also known as ‘spider hands'. "I know he's had a long period of introspection and played very well in the K-League," said Huh. "He has the know-how to lead the youngsters so he can contribute to the team in many ways."
In fact, Lee is one of the only three players who took part in two previous FIFA World Cups among the current 25-man squad, along with Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United and Lee Young-Pyo of Dortmund.
Park, who wore captain's armband for the first time in a 3-0 friendly win against Uzbekistan in October, remained humble as always: "I didn't think of myself being a captain but just did what I had to do on the pitch," said the 27-year-old. "I'm just one of 11, a part of the team. Nothing has changed, nothing is difficult."
That said, he scored a goal and set up another in the subsequent 4-1 victory over the United Arab Emirates. Not bad for a player who had been criticised for little end product considering his superb work rate. "We talk a lot with each other and try to focus on the game," Park explains. "When we try to enjoy the game, we can build up our confidence despite being under pressure."
If the two games last month were a test for the interim skipper, Park's new leadership will be under serious challenge in the forthcoming encounter with Saudi Arabia. Korea Republic have never beaten the Saudis in the past 19 years, with their latest victory being a 2-0 win en route to Italy 1990. So this time around, enjoying the game itself might not be enough for the Taeguk Warriors to set the record straight.
And that is exactly what Lee Young-Pyo is aware of: "As everybody knows, one goal is crucial in the important games of the final qualifying round. So it's important not to concede a goal. We have to stabilise the defence before we strengthen our ability to create chances."
Although Lee can celebrate his 100th international appearance next week, the priority is not about his personal achievement. "Our goal is to reach the finals [of the FIFA World Cup], of course. And the players also know that each and every game is important."