The news that English Premier League team Middlesbrough look set to buy South Korean striker Lee Dong-gook will be welcomed by the player. It may not be such good tidings for the K-League which will lose one of its biggest stars but even the competition’s greatest supporters would not begrudge the Lion King his chance to roar on one of the world’s biggest and brightest stages.
Lee has wanted to move to Europe for some time but hoped that it would come after impressive performances at the World Cup last June. However, he didn’t make it to Germany. Well, he did, but spent much of the summer at a Frankfurt sports clinic receiving treatment on a torn cruciate ligament.
It was a cool early April evening when the 27 year-old fired home a spectacular volley for his Togel club Pohang Steelers against Incheon United. An hour later, Lee ran for the ball but never made it, collapsing to the ground instead. The World Cup was two months away but even if it had been six, Lee wouldn’t have made that either.
For any player to miss a World Cup is heartbreaking but Lee felt it more than most after being unexpectedly left out of the 2002 World Cup squad by Guus Hiddink two years after finishing as the top scorer of the 2000 Asian Cup. After the coach departed, Lee returned to the team and under new Dutchman Jo Bonfrere, he finished as third-highest scorer in the 2004 continental competition. He wanted nothing more than the chance to show that he could perform just as well on the global stage.
Three goals – two of which were fearsome volleys – helped the team qualify for the 2006 version. As the Taeguk Warriors danced on the pitch in Kuwait in June 2005, Lee was more reserved than most.
“I know what it is like to miss out on the World Cup,” he said. “Anything can happen between now and next summer.”
The worst happened. The fact that despite missing more than half of the K-League season he still finished as the fifth top scorer wasn’t much of a consolation though a move to England will be.
It will not be his first time in Europe; he played seven games for Werder Bremen in 2001. He failed to settle in Germany however and was soon returning to Pohang.
A more mature Lee could soon be pulling on the red shirt of Middlesbrough. It remains to be seen if the north-east club will suit him. An unfashionable outfit, ‘Boro look set for mid-table mediocrity in the current season but that won’t bother the fans who were concerned at the club’s flirtation with the relegation zone.
Such a situation could help Lee. Being thrown into the middle of a relegation battle is no fun for anybody – fans are even more tense than the coaching staff and players. An environment that is a little more relaxed could see the spiky-haired marksman given more time and opportunities.
Middlesbrough may not be as glamorous as Manchester United or Arsenal but the fans care deeply about the club and will support the Korean in his efforts as long as he gives his all.
That isn’t a given as Lee has been accused of laziness in some quarters. It’s harsh; no player is picked 64 times, or scores 22 goals, for such a hard-working national team if he is idle. Like most strikers, Lee does have his anonymous periods but he comes alive in and around the penalty area where he is capable of producing goals from nothing. If he learns to score the simple, instinctive tap-ins to add to his armory of spectacular missiles, then coach Gareth Southgate will be more than happy.
It’s hard to say if Lee and his Hawaii-born wife will settle in England; every signing is a gamble, those from overseas more so. Middlesbrough has signed its fair share of foreign stars, some stayed and scored, others were quick to leave sometimes muttering darkly about the weather.
Few places are colder than Middlesbrough in winter time as the North Sea wind cuts across the industrial city, but Korea is one of them and few players will be as desperate to succeed as Lee Dong-gook.…