Lee Keunho says he harbours greater ambitions despite his crowning last week as Asia’s top player. The Ulsan Hyundai forward became the first player from Korea Republic to be named AFC Player of the Year, following a prolific 2012 for both club and country.
The 27-year-old was in effervescent form during this year's AFC Champions League, scoring four times as Ulsan tasted their maiden Asian success to book a place at the FIFA Club World Cup, also earning the tournament’s Most Valued Player award. And he maintained this newly achieved standard at international level, racking up five goals, including a brace in the Taeguk Warriors' 4-1 defeat of Qatar, during Asia's final qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
The rewards for such feats were, in a sense, expected. Last Thursday's AFC Gala saw Keunho edge the likes of Iran star Ali Karimi and China PR captain Zheng Zhi to clinch the continent’s ultimate individual accolade.
"The past year was very meaningful to me," a delighted Keunho told FIFA.com in an exclusive post-gala interview, "I came back to the national team, and at club level I won the Champions League with Ulsan. Particularly, it is a great honour for me to gain the AFC Player of the Year award."
Lee Keunho is no stranger on the Asian scene, having featured for the Koreans during South Africa 2010 qualifying. However, it was this year's Champions League campaign with Ulsan that provided him with the perfect setting to truly announce his arrival on the top continental stage.
The nimble player started every match during the group stage of the competition. Despite his failure to find the back of the net, he posed a constant threat in front of goal as Kim Hogon's charges finished as section winners undefeated.
He opened his account in the Round of 16 meeting with Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol, smashing home the match-winner with two minutes left. In the quarter-finals, Keunho was again on target, helping seal a second-leg 4-0 dismantling of Saudi giants Al Hilal. He then went on to score in each leg of the semi-final meeting with Bunyodkor as Ulsan ran out 5-1 aggregate winners.
Aside from dazzling the continent with his powerful dribbling and goal-scoring knack, Keunho displayed his unselfishness with a series of brilliant assists. Notably, he set up Rafinha to cancel out Jovlon Ibrokhimov's opener as Ulsan battled from behind to win 3-1 at Bunyodkor, before perfectly crossing for Kim Seungyong to slot home the match and tournament-winning goal in the 3-0 final defeat of Al Ahli.
"Teamwork is the key behind my success this year," said a modest Keunho reflecting upon on a fruitful year. "We had an outstanding run in the Champions League campaign as we became the winners. And the credit goes to the team and my coach without whom it would not have been possible. It has been extra special because it is the first title of my playing career and I won it in my Champions League debut. I have achieved almost all the goals I set at the start of the year."
Having said that, there are always dreams to realise for an ambitious player like Keunho, who has naturally set his sights on FIFA World Cup qualification. Korea Republic lost their last qualifier 1-0 against Iran, a result which saw the Taeguk Warriors concede top spot to Uzbekistan. Despite the disappointment, however, Keunho believes the side can bounce back to live up to their tag as Asia’s most successful team in FIFA World Cup qualifying history.
He said: “It was truly a pity that we lost the Iran game, but under the guidance of our coaching staff, both my team-mates and I are still very much positive about our qualifying prospects. We have three home games of the four matches left, so there are plenty of reasons that we can restore our dominant place,” he said. “We all believe we can reach the World Cup finals at Brazil 2014.”