Every cloud has a silver lining. At least, that’s the applicable cliché in this situation. In his seven appearances throughout the 2019 U-20 World Cup, youth standout Lee Kang-in had scored two goals and created four assists, including this final-clinching beauty against Ecuador. Using his splendid vision and creativity, LKI played a key role in the Taeguk Warriors’ dream run to the final in Poland. Despite his early penalty goal in the tournament final last week, Korea faltered by a scoreline of 1-3, failing to penetrate Ukraine’s formidable defense. Regardless, LKI was named the tournament’s best player, becoming only the second AFC player ever to win the U-20 World Cup Golden Ball. His recent international success has been impressive, but if you look back at LKI’s career up to this point, none of this should really be a surprise.
Before the Golden Ball
In last year’s Toulon Tournament, LKI proved to be the silver lining for a Korea U-19 squad that finished a dismal 11th out of 12 places. Despite his team’s underwhelming performance, he managed to garner the attention of the annual tournament’s closest onlookers. LKI impressed after scoring two goals in three games, including a stunner against Togo, before missing the final match against Qatar due to yellow card accumulation. This impressive showing proved the most pivotal moment of LKI’s career as Valencia FC subsequently signed the youngster to a four-year contract (with an £80 million release clause).
Lauded by Spanish football analysts for his excellent technical ability (passing, crossing, dribbling), LKI has seen post-Toulon success by capitalizing on the few opportunities he’s been given at Valencia FC. Splendid performances with their reserve team and key appearances with their senior team in pre-season friendlies have proven his major potential for a bountiful career in La Liga. The most key of these matches came last August when Valencia faced off against Bayer Leverkusen at Mestalla. There, LKI scored a concluding header in a convincing 3-0 victory for The Oranges. Since then, LKI has appeared in Copa del Rey and made his La Liga debut against Real Valladolid last January.
Korea’s Next Big Star?
Having been named to the first-team roster last March, LKI’s Valencia future looks brighter than ever before. It would be hard-pressed that he is not a regular first-team starter at a European club next season. But what does LKI’s recent international success reveal about his future on both the club and international levels? While winding down after a busy finals week, my roommate and I began speaking about Korea’s run to the final of the U-20 World Cup. From there, I began discussing LKI and the hype surrounding his performances during the tournament. My South Korean-born roommate, who has let his affinity for going to medical school swallow his love for soccer over the years, was surprisingly well-aware of his existence.
According to him, many Koreans predict LKI’s success to surpass that of recent Korean stars Son Heung-min and Park Ji-sung. In addition, the distinction of winning the U-20 World Cup Golden Ball puts LKI in the company of footballing heavyweights Lionel Messi (2005), Sergio Agüero (2007), and Paul Pogba (2013). LKI is also the first eighteen year-old to win the award since Messi did fourteen years ago. Coming off peak fitness from the best playing stretch of his career, many are expecting LKI to match massive expectations set for him. In terms of international play, LKI is expected to be the torchbearer of the senior national team within the next handful of years.
The expectations are high. Now what?
The biggest issue for him now will be finding regular playing time on the senior club level. With Valencia constantly competing for the coveted 4th place spot in La Liga, manager Marcelino has little room to experiment with youngsters in dire need of real playing experience. They can’t have more experienced players carrying younger teammates in crucial domestic or European matches. The club simply doesn’t have the world-class talent to take such risks in La Liga or the Champions League. Marcelino also boasts a reputation for conservative squad selection. His firm adherence to the 4-4-2 prevents LKI from playing in his preferred CAM position. This means LKI will likely be fighting an uphill battle against the likes of Villarreal loanee Denis Cheryshev and Portuguese standout Gonçalo Guedes for a spot up front.
A loan deal seems to be LKI’s best playing option at this early stage of his career. After the departure of Frankie de Jong, AFC Ajax has been searching for a midfielder replacement, which many have linked to a move with LKI. Many in Korea are hoping that LKI moves to the Netherlands so that he can grow through Ajax’s top-notch academy system. If the rumors prove to be true, LKI may find international stardom playing weekly in the Eredivisie like another Korean midfielder you may know.
Ballon d’Or or Bust?
Not every U-20 World Cup Golden Ball winner has gone on to become the next Maradona. Previous history shows that the award winners are just as likely to miss expectations as they are to exceed them. For every Messi, there’s a Dominic Adiyiah, the 2009 Golden Ball-winning journeyman striker who now plays for Thai second-division club Sisaket FC. Is it too early to foretell LKI’s future from his recent international success? Maybe. With him coming off an international tournament where he had 17% of his team’s touches, is it too early for me to speculate the world-class future the eighteen year-old has? I think not.
Do you think LKI’s Golden Ball is any indicator of how well he’ll perform for his club and country within the next few years? How about a Ballon d’Or in the distant future? Let us know how you feel below.