Looking back at the Korea Republic squad that took part in the FIFA U-20 World Cup seven years ago, the difficulty in making the transition from promising starlet to senior international is laid bare. Only a handful of youngsters in that squad – the likes of striker Park Chuyoung, defender Kim Jinkyu and goalkeeper Jung Sungryong – have become fully fledged Taeguk Warriors, while others have taken more time to reach their peak.
The opposite is true, though, for Lee Keunho, who didn’t even have the chance to come off the bench at Netherlands 2005, but is now arguably the hottest prospect in the Korea Republic side bidding to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. In fact, the 27-year-old Taeguk Warriors’ leading marksman since coach Choi Kang-Hee took the reins in December, with five goals in as many outings.
Lee opened his account with the goal that sealed a 2-0 win against Kuwait in February in the third round of preliminaries, and he was tgeb on target with a headed double in the next qualifying stage as Qatar were beaten 4-1 in June. He also set up Kim Bo-Kyung’s first international goal as the Taeguk Warriors breezed past Lebanon 3-0 in the following match, before netting a brace in a friendly with Zambia earlier this month.
However, this is not the first time that the Ulsan Horangi forward has found himself in the spotlight. Lee came to prominence during the Asian Zone qualifiers for South Africa 2010, when he scored crucial goals against United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. However, the then-Daegu FC star inexplicably lost his form thereafter, following a series of failed attempts to play in Europe and an unsuccessful stint in the Japanese J.League. Although he was included in Huh Jung-Moo’s provisional squad in the build-up to the finals, Lee ultimately missed out on a trip to South Africa.
However, he insists that he has put that disappointment behind him. “The past is the past, and I’m looking forward to [the FIFA World Cup in] Brazil,” Lee said after the Kuwait game. “I couldn’t have come here if I hadn’t put South Africa behind me. I still have plenty of time to prove myself during the final round and hopefully I’ll play better football in the games to come.”
As well as re-establishing himself in the national team, Lee is also making a notable progress in his club career after leaving Gamba Osaka to join Ulsan earlier this year. He has scored eight goals and set up two more already this season for the fourth-placed Tigers, and he also claimed the late winner that secured a 3-2 victory over Kashiwa Reysol and passage to the AFC Champions League quarter-finals.
The livewire forward has formed an effective partnership with towering striker Kim Shinwook for both club and country, and Lee was also comfortable playing a supporting role on the flanks in the recent 2-1 win over Zambia. “Shinwook and [Lee] Donggook played alongside each other, and with such powerful strikers up front I could find so much space behind them,” Lee explained. “And naturally the chances came to me to score goals.”
With the South Koreans facing tough journeys to Uzbekistan and then Iran in the upcoming months, coach Choi Kang-Hee will want to continue the form that has produced seven goals in just two matches. Should Lee maintain his current standards, the chances of that happening will be greatly enhanced.