I wasn’t planning on writing a piece about Lee Chun-Soo, but recent events have prompted me to do it. While the earlier people in the series (which admittedly is just Yoon Bitgaram and Lee Yong-Rae), are fairly recent players who had come on the scene, Lee Chun-Soo is a bit of a throw back. Lee first came on the scene when he was in high school, and was tipped to be the future of Korean football. Things started well, but soon went very bad.
Lee Chun-Soo is now 32 year old, and is playing for Incheon United. Lee may be the biggest bust in Korean football in the last decade or so. A speedy winger with good technique, Lee was a shining light when he came out of college and signed with Ulsan Hyundai. In his first season Lee made 18 appearances and scored 7 goals. His good performances even earned him a spot in Guus Hiddink’s World Cup squad at the tender age of 21. Lee came off the bench in all three of the group matches as well as the round of 16 win over Italy and the quarterfinal win over Spain. Lee also started the semi-final match against Germany, and played the whole 90 minutes. His World Cup performances attracted international attention, and Lee signed with Spanish outfit Real Sociedad, making him the first Korean to play in La Liga.
Lee struggled though in San Sebastian, eventually getting loaned out to Numancia the following season. Lee’s struggles continued (Numancia was relegated that season), and that summer (2005) he returned to Ulsan. Despite coming midway through the season, Lee helped Ulsan win the title, as they defeated Incheon 6-3 on aggregate, with Lee scoring a hattrick in the first leg. Lee’s performances earned him the league’s Most Valuable Player award at the end of the season.
Lee continued to do well with Ulsan, and he once again made the trip to the World Cup in 2006. Lee started all three of Korea’s group games, playing on the right side of Dick Advocaat’s attacking three. Lee scored the equalizing goal in Korea’s only win of the tournament against Togo in the first match. The following season Ulsan once again made the championship playoffs, but eventually fell in the second round to Pohang.
Lee would then try Europe again, signing for Dutch team Feyenoord. But like the time before, Lee struggled to adjust to European life and European football. Lee made 12 league appearance for the Rotterdam-side, and scored no goals. So, it was back to Korea the next summer, this time on a loan to Suwon. While his previous return to Korea helped spark his career and get him to another World Cup, this move turned out disastrous. Lee fought with coaches, and made headlines for other non-footballing reasons. Lee made 3 appearances for the Bluewings before the club requested that the league suspend him, which they obliged.
Eventually Suwon outright released him, and Feyenoord loaned him to Chunnam Dragons for the next season. Lee continued to make extremely poor decisions and got into more fights with the Chunnam coaching staff after they assigned him to the reserve squad. Making things even worse, a “secret” deal between Feyernoord, Lee, and Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr emerged while Lee was still under contract with Chunnam. Like Suwon, Chunnam asked the league to ban Lee, and once again, they obliged.
The ban however, only applies to the K League, and since Lee had signed with a foreign club he left anyway, and spent 1+ seasons with the Saudi club. Lee didn’t have much success there, and he left early again, this time for Japan and Omiya Ardija. His first year was okay, but his second was quite good. Lee made 27 league appearances and scored 6 goals. Omiya offered Lee a contract extension, but he declined, opting instead to attempt and return to Korea.
Because he was still on the ban list, Lee needed to get his banner (Chunnam) to agree to release him from the list. Lee made a trip to Gwangyang, where Chunnam plays, and appeared before the fans there, making a public apology for his prior transgressions. Lee also posted an apology on the club’s website. The club though, still unhappy with Lee (they were actually in court over contractual financial stuff), denied his request. Saying that Lee’s apology lacked sincerity.
But as time went on, and fan complaints grew, the club relented and took him off the list. Chunnam then promptly sent Lee to Incheon United, his hometown club. Lee promised to return the club and fans support with good play and behavior. Lee’s return to the K League prompted a fair bit of media attention. Lee had to wait a few weeks to make his debut as he hadn’t played in a year, but once he got going, he became an integral part of the side. And for the first few months of the season Incheon was a high flying surprise. Things seemed to be on the up for Lee.
But then last Sunday, trouble again for Lee. Police responded to a call from a bar in Guwol-dong in Incheon about a fight there. When they arrived they found Lee with a bloody hand and very drunk. Lee claimed that he had hit a man because the man and his friends were going after Lee’s wife. The man, however, says that they did not attack his wife, and that Lee’s wife wasn’t even there when the fight happened. The man claims that Lee hit him in the face twice and broke his phone with an empty beer bottle. While the investigation is ongoing, initial reports seem to indicate that police feel that Lee is not being truthful and that the other man is. Lee has admitted that he was so drunk that night that he cannot remember what happened.
I didn’t watch much K League action (it quite simply wasn’t available on TV in the US or internet) when Lee was a young buck who was tipped to be the next big thing, but I did see him when he made his eventual return to Korea this year. It happened to be the game that he scored his first goal for Incheon, against Busan IPark. Lee wasn’t the player who dazzled 10 years ago at the World Cup, but you could still see glimpses of what could have been. The occasional deft touch to take the ball away from a defender, and then the speed to burst down the wing leaving them in his wake. 32 and still one of the better players in the league.
Because Lee never really made it at the top, it’s not considered a terrible loss by many. And the emergence of another Lee, Lee Chung-Yong in 2008 certainly helped wash away any lingering thoughts about Lee Chun-Soo’s failures. But, there is still a little bit of that, ‘what may have been’ in me. What may have been if Lee had fulfilled his potential. If he hadn’t fallen out with club after club. If he hadn’t had those off the field issues. We’ll never know, but Lee is still a player worth noting, if only as a possible warning for the young stars of today. What can happen if the fame goes to your head. Hopefully they will all be aware of Lee Chun-Soo and his failings.