On May 23 the 2019 FIFA U20 World Cup will kick off in the host country of Poland. The world’s best U20 players will converge upon Poland and because of an unexpected confluence of events, Lee Kang-in will be leading the Taegeuk Warriors in the tournament. The Taegeuk Warriors will be looking to build upon a round of 16 exit at the hands of Portugal in the 2017 U20 World Cup hosted in Korea. Conveniently, Korea will get a rematch with Portugal in their first group match on May 25. On Thursday, head coach Chung Jung-yong will name his 21-man squad for the tournament. I’ll be back to dig into that squad announcement later in the week. First, let’s kick off our U20 World Cup coverage by taking a look at the events that led to Lee Kang-in’s surprise participation in the U20 World Cup.
The Qualification Process
The FIFA U20 World Cup qualification process began in October 2017 with the AFC U19 Championship qualifying groups. South Korea hosted Group F and coasted to a first place finish, with Lee Kang-in contributing two goals to the effort. The 2018 AFC U19 Championship was held last October, and because it coincided with the club season, Lee Kang-in was not released that time.
In 2017, Lee Kang-in was still playing with Valencia’s youth team, VCF Mestalla, so he was able to be released for the qualifying stages in Korea. It made sense since the Valencia academy system could certainly cope without him and he would get some experience on the international stage.
In 2018 however, Kang-in was now making a step up to the first team and Valencia now had bigger plans for him than sending him to a tournament in Indonesia midseason. In fact, on October 30th Kang-in made his first start for the first team in the Copa Del Rey Round of 16, with Valencia winning 2-1 over CD Ebro. Kang-in continued to see first-team action in the Copa Del Rey, culminating in his big break out moment this past January in Valencia’s last gasp quarterfinal comeback over Getafe 3-2 on aggregate. In the second leg, Kang-in was a 71st minute sub with Valencia down 2-1 on aggregate and trailing on away goals. Kang-in was involved in both late goals that led to the 3-2 aggregate victory that kept the cup run going for Valencia. That break-out moment actually paved the way for Kang-in to play at this FIFA U20 World Cup.
Before the 2018 season started, Lee Kang-in signed a contract extension through 2022 with Valencia. In that contract, there was a widely publicized clause that stated that a club had to pay Valencia 80 million Euros to release Kang-in from his contract. This is a huge sum and spoke to the potential Valencia believe that Kang-in has. However, if Kang-in was still a part of the Valencia youth setup, his release clause was a much smaller 20 million Euros. As a result, after a hugely influential performance in the Copa Del Rey quarterfinals, the Valencia leadership felt it was time to make the 80 million release clause official. They couldn’t risk a club coming in this summer and poaching Kang-in for 20 million when they believe he is worth 4x that amount.
Unfortunately, the way the Spanish football leagues work added up to an unfortunate situation for Kang-in. In Spain, if you’re a first-team player you are ineligible to play for your team’s reserves. This is because most La Liga reserve teams are fully professional and play in lower Spanish leagues. Kang-in was sort of caught between those rules because he wasn’t really a first-team player that manager Marcelino wanted to play all the time but he had lost his ability to play for youth teams with his new contract. Since the January 29th quarterfinal, Kang-in has gotten a total of 48 professional first-team minutes across 3 months of league and cup play. When you’re an 18 year-old developing pro, this is not ideal.
The fact of the matter is that when the games got more important for Valencia, Marcelino didn’t want to play Kang-in. Valencia is currently in 6th place in La Liga and battling for the final Champions League qualification spot, has a Europa League semifinal with Arsenal on Thursday, and will meet Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final. For Valencia to release Kang-in to the U20 World Cup means that Marcelino had no plans to use him for any of those important matches. Even with a late-season injury to Denis Cheryshev, Valencia have still declined to call Kang-in back to the first team.
In the end, what is Valencia’s loss will be the Taegeuk Warriors’ gain. Lee Kang-in will be one of the first names on Chung Jung-yong’s team sheets and will look to pull the strings of the attack in Poland. It’s fortunate that the circumstances came together to bring Kang-in to a tournament that we never thought he’d play in. Let’s all get ready to enjoy the FIFA U20 World Cup in Poland. I’ll be back Friday to go through the squad announcement and get you guys hyped up! Daehanminguk Hwaiting!