With Lee Chung-yong set to ride out the final years of his career with Ulsan Hyundai Horangi in the K-League, it’s only right to look back at one of the most dynamic and promising careers of any Korean footballer abroad.
My introduction to Chungy came with this video.
Just a fledgling football fan at the time, I was surprised to see how exciting he was; the mold of a traditional winger in the late ’00s had been to hug the line and cross, unlike now where they’re part of a goal-scoring attacking trident.
But Lee Chung-yong seemed like more than just a winger in that sense. Yes, he’d start on the right, but he could deliver that killer ball between the lines as well as he could cross. He could bomb up the pitch and never shied away from getting stuck in. His tenacity was ever-present in his play, both offensively and defensively, and, this could not be overstated, he was nice with the ball at his feet.
Despite what seemed like an early discovery, it was clear I was late to the game. Senol Gunes had cemented 18 year old Lee Chung-yong as a starter for FC Seoul, and neither of the two ever looked back as he made the right wing his own; in Lee Chung-yong’s final two seasons in the K-League, the teenager lead Seoul’s assist tally, and popped up with a couple of his own playing alongside K-League icons Park Chu-young, Dejan, and Jung Jo-gook.
Of course, it wouldn’t take long for Lee Chung-yong to burst onto the national scene, and this is when he truly began to shine.
At a time when stars from the ’02 era like Seol Ki-hyeon and Lee Chun-soo were struggling for consistency, Lee Chung-yong marked his national team debut in a World Cup qualifying match against Jordan, and the FC Seoul teenager managed an assist after a corner scramble, nodding the ball over to Park Ji-sung who roofed it into the net.
Thus began Lee Chung-yong’s national career, and his industry quickly grew instrumental for our national team — he was fearless with his head as he was in the tackle, and consistently built upon his uncanny ability to find that smart pass or sharp move to advance play.
Our midfield flourished with Park Ji-sung, Ki Sung-yueng, Kim Jung-woo, and Lee Chung-yong. The success of that midfield wasn’t built overnight — a number of dodgy World Cup qualifying performances brought Huh Jung-moo under some criticism, but as Lee Chung-yong grew with stride, so did our national team set-up en route to South Africa. And a certain Gary Megson at Bolton Wanderers seemed to be taking notice.
From Seoul to Bolton
For any Korean football fan at this time, it was as clear as Lee Jae-sung’s case that Chungy was bound for Europe. But in 2009, a direct move from the K-League to the Premier League seemed to be a recipe for disaster; Suwon’s Cho Won-hee had been the latest Korean export to flop in the Prem with Wigan. Lee Dong-gook struggled notoriously with his dismal stint at Middlesbrough from Pohang, and Kim Do-heon opted to move to West Brom from Seongnam in effort to win promotion from the Championship to play in the Prem.
All of the players mentioned above were established Korean nationals with a collective 150+ caps under their belt. If one were to heed precedent, Lee Chung-yong seemed to be missing that in-between move to transition from the K-League to Europe, let alone the Premier League. This seemed achingly more so at the raw age of 21.
Wrong. It only took 36 hours for Lee Chung-yong to see the pitch for Bolton in the Premier League, and despite his rushed introduction (including an incident of him falling asleep on the bench having yet adjusted to jet-lag), it would take no more than three off-the-bench appearances for Chungy to declare himself for the Wanderers.
His introduction v. Birmingham City came early in the second half, and it was as if he’d picked up right where he left off for FC Seoul; the notorious Premier League pace didn’t deter Lee Chung-yong from his game — a particular incident rounding then-Birmingham keeper Joe Hart only for his attempt to roll achingly wide.
Not all went according to plan; in the last ten minutes of play, Birmingham scored an equalizer after nicking possession from Lee Chung-yong, and early criticisms of his rawness seemed to be given new life. But in the last five minutes of regulation time, Matt Taylor had a free kick twenty-odd yards out and pinged the post. The rebound came to Lee Chung-yong, and after a kind bounce off his chest, he flicked the ball over two incoming defenders and gave himself one more touch before tapping in and reeling away with the game-winner.
So began Lee Chung-yong’s European career. By winter, Chungy cemented himself on the right for Bolton Wanderers and finished the 09/10 year with a whopping 40 appearances in all competitions, amassing five goals, eight assists, and a number of ‘Man of the Match’ awards — one of which coming from a 3–3 draw v. Man City where he drove Bolton’s attack, tallying an assist and a cheeky backheel that was squared for Bolton’s third.
But beyond personal records, the inclusion of Lee Chung-yong contributed greatly to the progressive football Bolton began to showcase. Already fluent in route-one, Bolton were beginning to move towards a more exciting direction with the newly appointed Owen Coyle at the helm, and Lee Chung-yong’s finish to a silky move against West Ham perfectly embodied Bolton’s footballing evolution.
It would be an understatement to say that Lee Chung-yong contributed to Bolton’s evolving gameplay; affectionately monikered “Chungy” by the Trotters, Lee Chung-yong closed out his massively successful year in Europe with two personal awards, Bolton’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year, before returning to Korea to prep for the World Cup that summer.
He probably would have won goal of the season as well if he’d scored that run against Liverpool.
South Africa, 2010
In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that this squad qualified out of World Cup group stages to take eventual semi-finalists Uruguay, spearheaded by Luis Suarez and tournament Golden-ball winner Diego Forlan, into extra time.
If ever there was a moment where we could point at the footballing progress Korea had made since our surreal finish in ’02, this was it. We had a #10 leading our line, and AS Monaco’s, in Park Chu-young. We had a strong select of full-backs in Europa League winner Kim Dong-jin and Cha Du-ri, whose career renaissance as a right back awarded him a starting spot opposite to Lee Young-pyo.
But our midfield was undeniably the strongest part of our team. We had the capable Kim Jung-woo acting as the defensive cover for Ki Sung-yueng who could focus on playmaking, and Park Ji-sung ran the wings interchangeably with Lee Chung-yong — indomitable drive honed in Manchester paired with trickery adapted to the Premier League.
We came out of our first group stage game in South Africa with a comfortable 2–0 win against Greece. Next up, Argentina.
It would be another match for Lee Chung-yong to demonstrate his quality; despite conceding twice, Korea went into the half with a fighting chance after Chungy nicked the ball off Demichelis to flick past the onrushing Sergio Romero. 2–1. Then, early into the second half, Lee Chung-yong drove down the middle before releasing Yeom Ki-hoon on the right for a 1-on-1 opportunity that would achingly skew off-target, blowing our best equalizing chance.
We got bodied 4-1 in the end. Not the greatest memory, but Korea qualified out of the World Cup group stages with 4 points, an identical tally to that in 2006, with a win against Greece, a ribbing against Argentina, and a merciful draw against Nigeria.
The pinnacle of Lee Chung-yong’s international career would come in Korea’s first ever World Cup knock-out match on foreign soil. At one-nil down against Uruguay after Jung Sung-ryong’s mental relapse, Lee Chung-yong finally rewarded our chase for an equalizer with our fourth set-piece goal of the tournament, heading in after a defensive scramble in the Uruguayan box.
South Africa can be remembered as a fond chapter in Korea’s journey to growing as a footballing nation. For Lee Chung-yong, a Premier League starter at 21 with two World Cup goals under his belt, his potential grew limitless as he returned to Bolton with “more World Cup goals than Wayne Rooney,” as cheered by the Bolton faithful the following season.
Chungy returned to a Bolton side on its way up; Stu Holden and Fabrice Muamba grew instrumental to the Trotters’ midfield alongside Chungy, and with forward Johan Elmander starting his season strongly, Bolton were competing for a top-half finish.
Yet despite the clear signs of progress, Bolton finished 14th following their end-of-season collapse. The highs included an FA Cup semi-final berth after Lee Chung-yong headed in a last-minute game winner against Birmingham City yet again, but the low of losing Stu Holden in March led to six losses out of the final eight league matches, and his absence would be a foreboding sign of things to come.
Alongside Ki Sung-yueng, Lee Chung-yong grew into a veteran leading the next wave of Korean prospects following 2011’s 3rd place Asian Cup finish — prospects like Ji Dong-won, tournament leading goalscorer Koo Ja-cheol, and a fledgling Hamburg youth prospect named Son Heung-min.
The future looked bright. Again, a generational cohort rose to begin transitioning into 2014, and Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong championed the youth, starting for Celtic and Bolton respectively at 21 and 22.
But everything would change before the start of the 11/12 season; in a pre-season friendly against English Conference side Newport County, Lee Chung-yong suffered from a loose-ball challenge that resulted in a double-fracture leg break. Effectively, Chungy’s season was over before it even started.
Things went from bad to worse — with player of the year Stu Holden exacerbating one injury after another, European ambitions devolved into a relegation dogfight upon the start of the season for Bolton. The Wanderers languished in the relegation zone throughout the 11/12 campaign. Then, as if the club hadn’t been through enough, Fabrice Muamba fell to a cardiac arrest in the middle of an FA Cup game against Spurs.
Despite a successful March, with four wins in a row, it wasn’t enough to prevent Bolton’s relegation as they drew on the final day against Stoke, missing safety by a single point.
Chungy, meanwhile, managed to make a couple cameo appearances in the last two matches of the season to mark an early return, but the Premier League dream was over. The Championship awaited Chungy and the Trotters.
To nobody’s surprise, Lee Chung-yong opted to stay with the club that stuck by him through rehabilitation. And as expected, Lee Chung-yong returned ever-present for Bolton with 41 appearances that season with four goals and eight assists to his name.
Statistically, he seemed on his way back to his springy self, but similarly to Bolton’s challenge for promotion (just missing Premier League play-offs on goal differential), Lee Chung-yong never returned to his promising heights.
The national team situation didn’t help his circumstances; despite remaining a mainstay on Korea’s national roster upon his recovery, Lee Chung-yong’s involvement in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil became everything but the poetic comeback we ached for as Korea crashed out without a single win in that World Cup — the first time since ’98 with such dismal results.
The lowest point of what would later become a dark decade for Korean football.
Uli Stielike took over after Hong Myung-bo’s short period as our national team manager, and beyond the 2015 Asian Cup runners-up finish against the home-side Australia, Korean football stagnated — exemplified through our dull possession play with Stielike devoid of any incisive movement our gameplay had once been known for.
Lee Chung-yong suffered — not only having to overcome his double-leg break with a club side struggling to return to the Premier League, but also by traveling across the world for a national team that languished with no cohesive identity. Tack on a string of injuries following a season-long recovery, and you have an explosive winger that now looks like a shadow of his former self.
Regardless, Lee Chung-yong persisted with his European dream and made a mid-season deadline day transfer in 2015 to Crystal Palace in hopes of rebirthing his Premier League career. A hairline fracture following the Asian Cup kept Chungy from debuting until months later, and with Alan Pardew at the helm, chances came as cameos.
Things didn’t change with new managers; Sam Allardyce overlooked Chungy throughout Crystal Palace’s relegation scrap. Frank de Boer rooted Crystal Palace dead last after just four game weeks into the 17/18 season and got the sack. Roy Hodgson has been in charge since — and Lee Chung-yong remained a periphery through each managerial tenure.
Thus, Lee Chung-yong languished. At a time where Korean football struggled to the point where it came down to the final matchday of the 2018 Asian Qualifiers to confirm an automatic World Cup birth over Syria, Lee Chung-yong’s international career became one of endurance. Yes, the highs were palpably high, but his career-changing injury occurred synonymously at the start of two World Cup cycles where Korean football suffered from poor management, upper-level management, and an absence of direction on the pitch despite a promising foundation to build upon.
Lee Chung-yong endured eight lukewarm years under Choi Kang-hee, Hong Myung-bo, Uli Stielike, then Shin Tae-young. And Shin Tae-young all but sealed Chungy’s international fate as he opted not to pick him as a final member of Korea’s 23-man roster headed to Russia.
Blue Dragon’s Legacy
Football can be cruel; the prime of Lee Chung-yong’s years didn’t come with the glamour promised with his near-unprecedented rise. For the Trotters faithful, Lee Chung-yong will always be remembered fondly. For many others, Chungy will be synonymously recognized as a story of what could have been.
But to leave it at that would disparage Lee Chung-yong’s impact on Korean football. Lee Chung-yong was a pioneer of a post-2002 generation that built upon Korean football’s legacy beyond a wild semi-final World Cup finish. Not only was Chungy recognized as one of the Premier League’s best young players of 2009–2010 season, but he was also the first Korean prospect of recent history to directly transition from the K-League into one of the top 5 leagues in Europe.
Despite their stellar Asian Cup performances, it’s hard to see Koo Ja-cheol go from Jeju to Wolfsburg, or Ji Dong-won from Jeonnam to Sunderland without considering Lee Chung-yong’s success at Bolton.
Lee Chung-yong was not a name for the papers; he never complicated matters for Bolton despite his rising value and rumored interest from Liverpool, and he never strayed from maintaining his game in Europe. Even after three years at Crystal Palace with scant playing time, he opted for one more move to VfL Bochum in the hopes of one final European swan song at what should have been the prime of his career at 28.
Now, he’s returned to a well-deserved homecoming with Ulsan Hyundai Horangi in what will probably be the final chapter of his career, and to that, all that could be said is thank you. Lee Chung-yong was one of the most exciting players to watch in our Korean uniform, and undeniably one of the most talented wingers of recent Korean footballing history. He blended seamlessly into the national team and then came up with two World Cup goals at the age of 22. He took the Premier League by storm and opened doors for future Korean players abroad. And dammit he’s got the most replayable highlights around with just how smooth he is on the ball.
Who knows; maybe we’ll see him return for the national team once he tears it up for Ulsan. He was there for the last Asian Cup, after all.
In the end, what glistens about Lee Chung-yong’s career is his indomitable professionalism. Despite an onslaught of hardships, he never wavered in his aspirations to become a top player. He kept vying for European opportunities, and remained a faithful servant to Korean football — especially during a time when the national team struggled with a slew of its own problems.
To that, all that can be said is thank you. Lee Chung-yong’s early accomplishments remain the stuff of legends, and the white-hot start of his career revealed newfound possibilities for Korean players with European aspirations that reverberate to this day. His trickery, fast feet, and direct play made him a privilege to watch, but as a Korean-American, it would take years until I’d realize how special it had been to watch Lee Chung-yong shatter the glass ceiling of what Korean footballers were perceived to be. Sometimes, all it takes is a new generation. For Lee Chung-yong, all it took was one chance.
Lee Chung-yong, we salute you. And Korean football fans worldwide look forward to a sparkling twilight to your comprehensive career with Ulsan in the K-League. Congratulations. You’ve done more than earned it.