For Lee Chungyong, a return to his homeland for FIFA World Cup™ qualifying games does not just mean a chance to catch up with old friends, or sample some authentic home-made cuisine, but something much closer to his heart: an opportunity to see his new-born baby girl.
“My wife and my daughter are in Korea, with me in London, so I miss them every day,” Lee said, in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. “I’m video-calling them every day. It feels amazing. I have more responsibility. I was there for only three or four days in Korea to see her [when she was born earlier this year].”
This new level of responsibility is something that translates on the pitch for Lee, with his role as one of the elder statesman in Uli Stielike’s Korea Republic squad. Despite being just 27, the Crystal Palace midfielder is one of the more experienced in a crop of players who have been charged with leading the Taeguk Warriors back to the global stage. They are off to a good start, scoring 23 times without reply in winning their opening six games of Russia 2018 qualifying, meaning they have already cantered into the third round.
“I think this team are getting stronger,” Lee said. “I didn’t play in many games last year because of injury, but I hope to play more. We have good players at the moment from defence to attack, all positions. We are quite a young team but have a good level of experience. I think we need some more training and time.”
Patience is a key message preached by the midfielder, with the former Bolton Wanderers man hinting that stability is key to building a lasting legacy, and for a successful final tournament in Russia.
“We need good preparations for three or four years, maybe even over the course of eight years,” Lee said. “When we change managers, we also changed players as well. If we want to get a good result at the World Cup we need to not have big changes every year.”
World Cup dreaming
Lee is full of praise for the man currently holding the reins, saying Stielike “gives confidence to the players” and has fostered an atmosphere that allows the side to “play with freedom on the pitch.”
That freedom was seemingly absent at Brazil 2014, when the side crashed out at the group stages, meaning Lee has mixed memories of the World Cup. His time at South Africa 2010 was more positive, punctuated by two goals as Huh Jungmoo’s side reached the Round of 16.
“The World Cup is my dream tournament,” Lee beamed. “In 2010, I had more confidence because all the players had more experience so I just followed them. It was a little bit different four years later, I felt quite under pressure. I don’t think I played that well at Brazil 2014. We were disappointed with that World Cup, I had a tough time. I hope we can reach Russia. I want to make more good memories of a World Cup, in my third.”
The chances of Lee making positive memories in Russia may largely rest on Korea’s superstar forward Son Heungmin. Also in London, on the other side of the River Thames at Tottenham Hotspur, Lee revealed the pair often spend their free time together.
“I really enjoy playing alongside him,” Lee said. “I met him four or five years ago in the national team. He’s a very bright player, on and off the pitch. We meet up a lot at the moment. Quite often we meet up and talk about football, and stuff outside of football too. We always eat Korean food together. We know the best restaurants now!”
2002 inspiration fuels ambition
It is unlikely that a 13-year-old Lee Chungyong would have imagined living a Premier League footballer’s life in London, and back in 2002 the future Korea Republic international watched his idols reach a historic World Cup semi-final in their homeland.
“That World Cup was a wonderful dream for me,” Lee recalls. “I really enjoyed that time, watching the World Cup in my country. When I joined the national team I played with 2002 players. The game against Italy, the Round of 16, that game was very exciting for me. I was so nervous, the whole country was very scared I think!”
Inspired by that landmark tournament, and with footballing team-mates focusing on education in order to head to university, a 16-year-old Lee took the decision to train with FC Seoul.
“It was a little bit of a risk for me, a gamble. My dream was to be a professional footballer. That was the only way for me to do it. FC Seoul wanted me to go training with professional footballers, it was a great chance for me. My parents respected my choice.”
If his daughter came to him, as he did to his parents, and asked if she could give up school to become a footballer, what would he say?
“If she wants to, that’s fine,” Lee said. “But I’d rather she didn’t. I’ve had some bad injuries myself, and I don’t want my daughter to be hurt.”
He may be half-a-world away, but Lee’s love is clear, and he will bring his daughter and wife to London after the qualifiers. That is when Lee will certainly learn a new meaning of the word 'responsibility'.