Once the Taeguk Warriors’ automatic choices up front, at present Ahn Jung-Hwan and Lee Dong-Gook are nervously waiting for their chances to take part in what would probably be their last FIFA World Cup™. The two strikers used to work in tandem with one another during the qualifying for Germany 2006, but four years on, only coach Huh Jung-Moo knows whether the duo, or even one of them, will make the plane to South Africa in two months’ time.
Ahn and Lee have so many things in common. They almost immediately took the centre stage on their debut in the K-League in 1998, with Pohang starlet Lee taking the Rookie of the Year award and Ahn voted the Most Valuable Player the following season with Busan. If Lee was first to shine on the world stage by making a brief but impressive appearance at France 1998, Ahn went on to begin a high-profile career with Perugia in the Italian Serie A in 2000.
However, they were completely different in terms of their style of play from the outset. Ahn is an all-round forward who usually scores with unpredictable curling shots from the edge of the area, while Lee is closer to a conventional centre forward who lurks into the box and finishes with precision. Although it must not have been as simple as a choice between precision and power, Guus Hiddink eventually opted for the former and discarded the latter at Korea/Japan 2002.
But that was not, of course, the end of the story. Despite achieving hero’s status with two clinical headers against USA and Italy at the FIFA World Cup on home soil, Ahn was released by his club in the summer before continuing his adventure in Japan, France and Germany. And the journeyman managed to return to the national team in time for their trip to Germany 2006, where he netted his third goal at the finals with a superb effort against Togo.
Meanwhile, Lee was taking his time to put the disappointment behind at military club Gwangju Sangmu, where he learned the value of teamwork and how best to channel his aggression. By the time he returned to his hometown club Pohang in 2005, Lee had scored five goals in eight outings in qualifying for Germany 2006. However, a serious knee injury suffered while playing for the Steelers in April prevented him from making his second appearance at the world finals.
Their mixed fortunes seemed to draw parallel lines after the 2006 FIFA World Cup, with Ahn struggling to claim his place at Suwon and Busan following his comeback to the K-League and Lee desperate to find his form at Seongnam after a forgettable spell in the English Premiership with Middlesbrough. It was no surprise that, during the period, Huh Jung-Moo called up Ahn just three times while giving Lee no chance in Korea Republic’s qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010.
With the veterans seemingly fading into oblivion, there was a dramatic reversal of their story last year. Lee celebrated the year of his 30th birthday by helping Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors win their first national championship, finishing on top of the scoring chart with 20 goals that also earned him the Most Valuable Player award.
For his part, Ahn was quick to establish himself as a key player for Dalian Shide, transforming himself into an attacking midfielder in the process. The 34-year-old also helped his side finish seventh in the Chinese Super League with six goals, including a brace against Zhejiang Lucheng.
Their performances last season certainly did not go unnoticed by coach Huh, who called up the duo again for a friendly with Côte d’Ivoire in London last month. Lee opened the scoring with an unstoppable volley inside four minutes, with Ahn replacing his rival at the interval to help the Taeguk Warriors famously beat the Elephants 2-0. It seems that Huh is taking everything into consideration before finally making his decision next month.