Summer 2010, South Africa. Africa was united, Spain were flying, and Luis Suarez was only handling on the goal line and not even thinking of biting anybody. South Korea chugged away and got out of their group, and they even gave eventual semi-finalists Uruguay a good match in the second round. While a few hard-to-please Korean supporters were hoping for a repeat of the team’s unlikely 2002 heroics on home turf, it was still a good turn-out for the Taeguk Warriors.
Park Ji-sung was still in his prime, Park Chu-young was riding the wave of a good year in France, and a fresh-faced Ki Sung-yueng was pulling his young strings in midfield. But the real rising star of Korea’s tournament was a right-winger who had just come off a stunning debut season in the Premiership. Bolton Wanderers fans had just spent a wide-eyed year watching a little-known 21 year-old from Seoul light up their games with searing pace, quick, tidy feet and a little wizard’s cauldron full of neat tricks. After being named as the team’s player of the year, Lee Chung-yong flew off to Cape Town and carried on where he left off. He bagged two goals in Korea’s plucky attempt to remind the rest of the world of 2002, and then came rumours of possible transfers to big-name clubs like Liverpool.
‘Chungy’ followed up his debut year in Bolton with a second solid season, chalking up respectable if not eye-watering numbers for goals and assists (3 and 6 respectively). But then everything changed. A now infamous pre-season tackle by Newport County’s Tom Miller broke the rising star’s leg and essentially ruled him out for the entire next season. When he returned, Bolton were in the Championship.
It took a while for the winger to show his true quality again. It wasn’t until the 2014-15 season that Premier League clubs began to sit back up and take a real interest. Under Neil Lennon, Lee became Bolton’s creator-in-chief from a central attacking midfield position, and he sealed a move to Crystal Palace in the winter window. Unfortunately another injury, this time sustained while representing Korea in the 2015 Asian Cup, ruled Lee out for several more months and prevented an instant impact at his new club.
The past two years have been just as disappointing, with Chungy mostly left on a plastic chair, watching various Crystal Palace managers pace to and fro in that depressing few yards between the bench and the pitch. Now with only a year left on his contract and a new manager in Frank de Boer, Lee is at another crossroads.
There will no doubt be plenty of offers for the experienced winger, but Lee’s decision here will be vital. He simply cannot afford to waste away on the sidelines, especially with next year’s World Cup on the horizon. The fact that Jeonbuk’s Lee Jae-sung is no longer ‘one for the future’ and is very much a ‘one for the now’ only adds even greater urgency to Chungy’s cause. Left out of Korea’s latest qualifying debacle against Qatar, Chungy needs football, and lots of it.
While a few mid-to-lower Premiership teams would welcome a player of Lee’s quality in their squads, first-team football is a priority for the player. With this in mind, a Championship club could well be the safer bet, giving him the platform to show the form he displayed in his last half-season at Bolton, when he looked like one of the league’s best players.
It’s easy for forgotten men to be ruled out and labelled as ‘past their best’, especially after big injuries. But make no mistake, Lee Chung-yong is still one of Korea’s most talented players. He may have lost a few yards in pace and that spark of fearlessness that he brought to England on that first flight over from Incheon, but he still keeps the ball remarkably well and technically he’s lost nothing. All he needs is one manager to show him faith and give him that coveted license to thrill. Lee just needs to make sure he chooses the right man for the job.