- *Korea Republic U-20 players already finding themselves idolised *
- Lee Sangmin remaining humble, despite the attention
Team captain saved the life of team-mate Jeong Taewook before the tournament
Barely 20 years old, they are icons in their homeland already. Fans flock to each of their games in droves. All three of their group matches have been broadcast on a loop across the country, and absolutely everyone recognises them in the street. They are the players representing host nation Korea Republic at the FIFA U-20 World Cup – and, since the tournament began, their lives have been transformed.
Such a sudden burst of media exposure might cause many players to lose their heads. Add in the captain's armband and you could forgive anyone for struggling to stay modest. Lee Sangmin, however, is as humble as they come. "The idea that I'm already a star is far from my mind," the centre-back told FIFA.com, fresh from signing a few autographs for strangers thrilled to be sharing the Taeguk Warriors' hotel in Cheonan. "But, if one day I become a little more known outside Korea, in a sense that would mean I'd succeeded in my career, given how important football is throughout the world."
For the moment, two of his team-mates in particular have started building reputations abroad: Lee Seungwoo and Paik Seungho. Both have been learning their trade at Barcelona's prestigious La Masia academy, and – unsurprisingly – the pair face more media coverage than most. Their captain could not be happier for them. "How could I be envious?" he said. "I've been playing with Lee since I was 13 or 14. On the contrary, I'm grateful to them. Thanks to them, people are taking an interest in our whole team."
As for Lee Sangmin himself, he began catching the eye when he skippered Korea Republic at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015, a tournament he remembers fondly. "We were considered the weakest team in the group, but we managed to surprise everyone by reaching the Round of 16," he said. "That kind of experience teaches you so many lessons. If we've been able to remain calm, focused and confident at this World Cup, it's thanks in part to what we went through in Chile."
Despite that impressive start, Lee truly found fame during a warm-up match for the U-20 World Cup against Zambia in April. And for good reason - the Soongsil University student having saved the life of team-mate Jeong Taewook following a collision with Kenneth Kalunga.
Jeong had started to swallow his tongue, but Lee was able to clear his airway in time. "I was closest to the action, so it was me who intervened," he explained. "There's no reason to talk about glory. Lots of people think it was a heroic act, but I'm certain that anyone else would have done the same. What's important is that Jeong is here with us at this World Cup."
Jeong and Co have been excellent so far as well, having finished runners-up in a tough group featuring Argentina, Guinea and England. "We've done a pretty good job since the start of the tournament," said Lee. "But I think we've only shown 50 per cent of our potential, and our best is yet to come."
He is eager to raise his own standards too, though few would agree with his harsh analysis of his own contribution. "Speaking personally, I'm not at all satisfied with my performances. I want to show what I'm capable of, and hopefully I'll get the chance to do that against Portugal tomorrow."
While undoubtedly severe, that hyper-critical take is in keeping with the youngster's humble personality. A fan of Germany defender Mats Hummels, the Taeguk Warriors' captain is loath to blow his own trumpet. But, whether he likes it or not, with Lee Sangmin in their ranks, Korea Republic's rising stars can legitimately start dreaming of bigger things.