After two goalless draws in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and a 1-1 stalemate at the East Asian Championship earlier this year, Korea Republic and Korea DPR are coming to know each other very well. Their clash in Shanghai on Wednesday represents the latest episode in a long-running struggle for bragging rights on the peninsula.
While the South Koreans managed a lacklustre 1-0 win over Jordan in a home friendly on Friday, the North Koreans got off to a flying start by beating the United Arab Emirates 2-1 on the road on Saturday. But despite their neighbours' impressive start to the final phase of the qualifying campaign, Korea Republic will be banking on a match-winning performance from a player who returns to the national team after 13 months' absence.
Although Lee Chun-Soo missed the warm-up game last week with flu, the 27-year-old is likely to win his 79th cap against Korea DPR, whom he has never faced at senior level. Lee, who had been out of the squad after Korea Republic's AFC Asian Cup campaign in July 2007 and the appointment of Huh Jung-Moo as coach in December, struggled to cement a place at his Dutch club Feyenoord, and was subsequently transferred to Suwon Samsung Bluewings on loan during the summer.
Despite the memory of his two-year spell in Spain with Real Sociedad and Numancia, during which he failed to score in 28 games, the local fans still believe that the diminutive forward will immediately return to his form and guide his new club to the domestic championship, as he did with Ulsan Hyundai Horangi in 2005. And Lee was quick to live up to expectations, scoring the winner against Incheon United at home on 27 August.
"I'm so pleased to have scored, and I want to score more," said Lee, whose playing style has earned him the nickname of ‘the Dodger'. "I also want to create scoring chances for others."
When coach Huh called him up to the squad the following day, few raised their eyebrows. It was a commonly-held view that the team needed his guile and guts to break the deadlock against the Chollima's stubborn rearguard.
"It's an emotional moment, because I'm back here after a year's wait. I'm also a bit worried, because this is a hard time for the national team and for myself as well," said Lee upon returning to the National Football Centre. "I thought about a lot of things, but now I want to focus on winning the game. I've also talked to one of the opponents at my club [Korea DPR midfielder An Yong-Hak at Suwon]."
In fact, Lee is the most capped player, bar captain Kim Nam-Il, in the current squad. His experience will be needed, too, as the Taeguk Warriors are entering the fourth and final qualifying round without the experienced trio of Lee Young-Pyo, Seol Ki-Hyun, and Park Ji-Sung.
"It would be good to have Ji-Sung in the squad, but I've heard he's not fully recovered from injury. A funny thing is that we haven't played with each other many times in the national team, actually," Lee admitted. "So I want to play twice as hard, to fill his gap!
Too much of a burden upon the shoulders of a player who has played only a dozen competitive games in the past twelve months?
"Even if I'm not fully fit at the moment, I told the coach that I'm mentally ready for the game," said an upbeat Lee. "I'm just happy to be on the pitch, because I've had too much rest. I was tired both physically and mentally, not even knowing I'd be back playing again. Now, I want to do my best, and I want to win."