South Korea have two Barcelona players in their squad but all the attention when the FIFA U20 World Cup kicks off on Saturday will be on the “Korean Messi”, Lee Seung-Woo.
Midfielder Paik Seung-Ho is highly-rated but Lee, who plays for Barcelona’s Under-19 team known as Juvenil A, is the one who has the national media giving daily updates on his fashion style and choice of hairbands.
The original Lionel Messi won the “Golden Ball” as the tournament’s best player in 2005 along with the “Golden Shoe” as top scorer in 2005 and has been the inspiration for Lee ever since he was spotted by the Spanish club giants in 2010 and recruited the following year.
It is not just the dribbling, the pace and the confidence that Lee, 19, possesses that remind of the Argentine star but his goalscoring exploits at Barcelona. At the age of 13, he was breaking Messi’s club records.
Diego Maradona was in Seoul in March for the official draw for the tournament. “I have heard a lot about Lee,” said Maradona, another Argentine winner of the tournament MVP award in 1979.
“I look forward to seeing what he can do especially against Argentina.”
Korea have been drawn with the South Americans in Group A along with England and opening day opponent Guinea.
Sixteen of the 24 teams that start the tournament will progress to the second round, the top two teams from each of the six groups and four of the best-performing third-place finishers.
“A football team has 11 players on the pitch, but in decisive moments, key players like Lee and Paik need to step up and make things happen,” said Choi Kang-Hee, coach of 2016 AFC Champions League winner Jeonbuk Motors.
“Lee has the ability to change a game and has the makings of an excellent player.”
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The young Taeguk Warriors reached the last four back in 1984 and the last eight twice in the last four tournaments and need Lee to be on top form if there is to be a chance of, at least, matching those past performances.
At the moment, the player is looking good. In Friday’s warm-up with South American champion Uruguay, Lee scored the first goal in a 2-0 win.
“Uruguay are a very strong team and it is good to score against them and good for us to get the win,” said Lee.
“We are focused on the first game of the tournament with Guinea. They have had good results in Africa and we know they are skilful and physically strong. It will be a tough game.”
He does not however have a personal target of goals for the tournament. “If we can stay long in the tournament, then I should have many opportunities to score… if we give our best effort and run more than our opponents, there will be good results.
“We want to go all the way and show what we are made of.”
Lee has been one of the biggest stars in Korean football since earning rave reviews for Barcelona.
He also shone in 2014 as South Korea reached the final of Asia’s U16 Championship.
He came to attention to the wider world as Barcelona’s recruitment of Lee led FIFA to hit the club with a two-year transfer ban after for breaching regulations for the transfer of minors. Lee was subsequently unable to play competitively for the club until he turned 18 in January 2016.
That is all in the past. Lee has a chance to show fans around the world, and especially those in South Korea, how accurate his nickname is.
“Since I joined Barcelona Juvenil A, my goal has been to make it to the senior national team and Barcelona FC,” said Lee. “I want to challenge myself further after leading the team to a win at the U20 World Cup.”