As many of you may have heard, Lee Kang-in recently signed a new contract and yesterday, made his professional debut for Valencia CF (the first team) aged just 17 years old.
As a recap: the new contract ties Lee Kang-in to Valencia until 2022 with a buyout clause of 80m Euros. He will play with the B team for most of the season, but was granted permission to spend preseason with the A team (which was a point of contention early in contract negotiations).
His debut was made in Switzerland against Lausanne. He was subbed on 25 minutes into the game and was taken off at the half time mark (preseason = tons of substitutions btw). And what a debut it was. Some miscontrols (and a golden opportunity wasted less than 1m in front of goal), but he still looked good, esp considering his age (then again, no one tries during preseason anyway).
On Bigsoccer Korea there is a poster named Xavilo based in Valencia who provides amazing insider updates here and there regarding Lee Kang-in (I’ve quoted him many times on this site). He had this to say about LKI’s debut:
Best debut since Pablo Aimar vs Man United in 2001
The game was bad af, most of the players were already tired after a couple of runs lol, and because the rival was a 2nd tier Swiss team, they were like whatever most of the time
Great debut by Kangin, basically the only one who tried to create something, had a couple of chances, a couple of good almost-assists, all of this in a little over 20 minutes.
Also he is in very good shape physically, now he will be controlled by the 1st team nutritionists, so he is going to get better and better. We’ll see if he gets minutes vs PSV-Leicester-Everton-Leverkusen, in those games there will be fewer subs and it will be difficult, but I’m confident.
Anyways, a good day for Lee Kang-in and also he is the first Asian player to wear Valencia’s shirt, so he is already in the history book of the club, congrats to him!
To me this feels like a monumental moment for Korean football, yet I also feel like a proud father of sorts. I still remember that summer when I was a junior in high school – I was volunteering at a hospital when it was announced that the star of FC Shootdori had transferred to Valencia’s Academy. The previous year Baek Seungho had signed for Barcelona, and not so long before LKI’s announcement, Lee Seung-woo and Jang Gyeolhee had transferred to Barcelona as well. Having watched my first soccer game on television ever just a year ago (at the 2010 World Cup) I was so enthused to see the future of Korean football so bright. And it was my frequent updating on the 4 Spanish kids through Bigsoccer Korea that got me this position at the Tavern in the first place. I would continue to scour the internet for LKI HL videos, uploaded by Valencia TV, 한방이얍, and other Koreans who somehow got footage of LKI’s balltouches.
Seven years have passed since then. While the Barca trio had their growth stunted by the FIFA ban (what would Korean football look like had Lee Chung-yong not gotten injured, had the FIFA ban never happened…) Lee Kang-in just continued to progress. Every year Lee would post highlights at some major Spanish tournament, winning awards along the way just like Lee Seung-woo did.
Here are some major milestones in Lee Kang-in’s Valencia career prior to his mainstream fame in Korean football
Pre-Valencia: FC Shootdori
The kid got famous in Korea for featuring for Shootdori, a TV program that had been around since 2005-2006-ish focusing on very young (<10 years old) soccer teams playing against each other. Lee Kang-in blew away the competition. He could do advanced tricks, breezed past defenders, and had remarkable physical stamina. There’s a reason why Valencia took a kid who was, for lack of a better term, a reality TV star.
First season: Lee’s first season was with Valencia’s Infantil setup. I reflect very fondly on these videos, because I watched them a million times back in the day. Needless to say, he was just too good for this team. But he was not fast tracked like some other elite talents were at the time (i.e. his teammate Nabil Touaizi, who ended up transferring to Man City and is currently doing well at Man City U23).
That tournament with Fernando Llorente asking “who is this kid?” Here, LKI played PSG, Dortmund, Juve, Real, and Barca’s youth teams… and lost in the final to Barcelona
Callups to the Spanish regional sides / fast tracking?
Throughout LKI’s time in Valencia he was called up to the Valencia selection multiple times. In Spain the different regions (Valencia, Basque, Catalonia, etc.) have their own “regional selections” and play against each other. And Lee KI consistently made those teams as one of their youngest players. Moreover, at the end of every season LKI played games with the next level up (i.e. Cadete A as a Cadete B, more recently Valencia B as Juvenil A, etc.) – every time there would be speculation amongst the fans if he would be fast tracked (i.e. 15 year old playing full time in the U-16 side), but perhaps for the better, it did not happen.
The COTIF tournament
I have no idea what this stands for tbh, but it’s a major tourney (LSW/BSH played in it too) and LKI won the MVP award there despite being one of the youngest kids at the competition.
Technically LKI was called up for training camp in May 2017 but his competitive debut was later in 2017, in the qualifiers for the U19 championship in 2018. TBH there were no real highlightable moments – he didn’t start many games because he was only 16 at the time. It wasn’t until the Toulon that LKI really started to play for the KNT youth teams.
Obviously LKI isn’t ready for La Liga football, and he’s going to be spending the next season with the B team. So while we shouldn’t get hyped TOO much, I still do think this sign of intent from Valencia is meaningful – he’s seen as one of Mestalla’s crown jewels, he is clearly valued by the club, and now he’s one step closer to becoming a full fledged professional. Honestly, we have to thank FIFA for overlooking Lee Kangin’s case – because had he also gone through the ban we might not be seeing him in a Valencia shirt.
There are upcoming friendlies against PSV Leicester Everton and Leverkusen – perhaps we’ll see LKI playing against those teams as well! He may also get permission from Valencia to play in the AFC U19 Championship… though some would argue LKI should focus on Valencia B rather than taking September/October off for a tournament, I do think he’s become a necessary part of the U19 setup. In recent years we have screwed up this tournament multiple times, so his inclusion may actually make a difference.