Having automatically qualified as hosts of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2017, Korea Republic will be under less pressure than usual heading into this week’s AFC U-19 Championship in Bahrain, which will determine the four teams from the region to join the hosts at next year’s showpiece event.
For all that, the atmosphere was still tense at the national training centre in Paju, Gyeonggi-do, last Friday, when the squad had their final training session before boarding a plane for Bahrain. Coach Iksoo Ahn, normally not one to show much emotion, smiled hesitantly for reporters as he outlined his side’s goals for Bahrain. "I asked the players what our target should be for this tournament and they replied ‘to win it’. So, we’ve decided to aim for that."
This confidence is not without foundation either. Korea Republic will be one of strongest teams present and can point to 12 regional titles at this level. Furthermore, they won all four games in the qualifying phase last September/October, topscoring with 26 goals. In their opening qualifier against Singapore, team captain Dongjun Lee came on in the second half and scored a hat trick in a 6-2 win, before adding another in the next game against Taiwan to become his side’s joint top scorer at the event with Jihoon Kang.
However, for the right winger, his own goal tally is not what matters most, as he explained to FIFA.com. "We’re not a team that depends on one particular player. We’re all about playing as a team and being organised – that’s how we overcome our opponents. This is our main philosophy and it’s something our coach focuses on a lot in training. If we can master that, then I think we can do very well at next year’s World Cup.”
Born and raised in Busan, where he got his first taste of football in elementary school, Lee later made it onto the youth team of K-League side Busan IPark. A serious back injury picked up in third grade of Junior High threatened his ambitions. However, he overcame that set-back and went on to represent his national team in various categories up to U-17 level, although next year’s World Cup will be his first appearance on the global stage. Currently playing for Soongsil University, the 19-year-old scored eight goals in 10 U League games to become his side’s leading scorer this season.
"It’s true that this [AFC Championship] will be the biggest event of my career thus far. However, since I’m the captain, I always have to put the team first, so I’m preparing for our first game with resolute determination. It’s important to identify areas we can improve on and work on them together as a group."
As well as good memories, Lee has one particular regret from the qualifying event for Bahrain 2016. "It was our last game and we were facing the host country, Thailand. One of our players got injured but the opposition wouldn’t put the ball out of play. I went to remonstrate with them and things got physical. I got hit in the face and, being infuriated, reacted by shoving one of my opponents, earning myself an instant red card. Even though it was unfair and sad, it happened because I lost my cool," he admitted. As a consequence, Lee is suspended for his side’s opening game in Bahrain, also against Thailand.
*Putting the team first
*In spite of that, coach Iksoo Ahn did not lose his faith in his captain. "I always put the team first,” he reiterated. “I think the coach noticed that and realised I do my best to lead the players with greater responsibility. I usually encourage my team-mates a lot, and make efforts to improve team spirit. Because the players follow my lead, I think our team works well together."
Lee has been handed the No7 shirt this season, an honour that has a special meaning for him. "Jisung Park has been my role model since my childhood,” he said. “It’s an honour for me to wear the same number as him. I respect him because he was someone who took the initiative and set an example in all aspects. The foreign players I want to emulate include Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard. I want to emulate Bale for his playing style and have many things to learn from Hazard because he is good at those things that I’m weak at," he continued.
By way of preparation, the national U-19 team took part in the 4Nations International U-19 Football Tournament in September alongside Senegal, Uruguay and Qatar, drawing twice 2-2, and enjoying a 1-0 victory over Qatar, winners of the last AFC U-19 Championship in 2014. "When we faced Qatar, they had several forwards who posed a real threat, but because of our organisation we prevailed. At this Championship we have to do all we can to win the title, so that means beating whoever we encounter.
And while Korea Republic have enjoyed considerable regional success in this age category, there is currently far greater parity between teams across Asia, as shown by the country’s failure to qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015. At the 2014 U-19 Championship in Myanmar that served as the regional qualifier, a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Japan ensured they could not progress from their group. “I think Japan are the strongest team in Asia at present,” said Lee. “Even though we beat them in a friendly last time out and have good memories of that, they are certainly an opponent to watch carefully. However, that doesn’t mean we cannot still win the Asian championship,” he added.
We ended our interview by asking Lee if there was room for some personal ambition alongside his strong team ethic. "To be honest, I’ve never thought about my personal goal; it’s always been about winning the championship. That’s our ultimate goal and all I’m trying to envisage. If we accomplish that, then the other things will follow automatically. So no, I don't have any personal ambition going into this tournament. It would be a great honour for me if I could help the team perform well and win the championship, and perhaps become player of the tournament. Maybe I should set myself that goal," he concluded.