Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lee's Dortmund Decision Is Sound

Lee's Dortmund Decision Is Sound.
Lee Young-pyo is one of football’s true gentlemen. The versatile defender is leaving Tottenham Hotspur for Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund after three good years at White Hart Lane and all who knew him, as well as those who benefitted from some of his unreported good deeds he did off the pitch in London, will wish him well at the former European champions.

He wasn’t bad on the pitch too, making 93 appearances for Spurs since his move to the Lane from PSV Eindhoven in August 2005. Then, Martin Jol called him ‘the best left-back in Holland, and one of the best left-backs in Europe.’ Lee didn’t quite prove to be that but his hard-working performances on an undermanned left side for Tottenham should be remembered fondly by fans at the Lane.

Unlike Park Ji-sung, Lee actually started out in the K-League with the now-defunct Anyang Cheetahs. The Gyeonggi team lifted the 2000 Korean championship but Lee, who can play on either side of defence or midfield, had already made his first appearance for the national team in 1999 against Mexico in Seoul.

It was at the 2002 World Cup where Lee came to prominence though he missed the first two matches of that magical run to the semi-finals. He soon made up for that and was energetic and inventive after coming into the team in the final group match against Portugal. If nothing else, he will be remembered for the cross that was headed in by Ahn Jung-hwan to eliminate Italy in the second round – a golden goal that still hurts in Italy but not so much as to prevent Roma trying their utmost to sign the player in August 2006. But we are getting ahead of ourselves...

The committed Christian was confident, calm and composed in Korea and was always a likely candidate for a move west. There was little surprise then when Guus Hiddink took him to PSV Eindhoven at the end of 2002. It took Lee a little while to settle ( the words of then team-mate Marc Von Bommel have passed into Asian football folklore. The Dutchman said of the new recruits: “They are here, but that is all you can say about them. They have not made any progress. When you say something about some mistake they make, they smile and then continue making them. That is quite frustrating.”) though the addition of Park helped.

Like Park, Lee soon demonstrated that he was not part of some marketing exercise and like Park, Lee shone in PSV’s run to the 2005 Champions League semi-finals,giving AC Milan’s Cafu a torrid time. As often happens in Holland, success brings the boys from the big leagues and soon Park was Manchester-bound. Lee was also eyeing a move across the North Sea and ended up in North London despite the best efforts of PSV and Hiddink to keep him.

The first season was a good –though ultimately frustrating – one. Lee adapted quickly to life in Europe’s biggest city and the Premier League. Spurs spent much of the season in the top four before being squeezed out of a Champions League spot on the final day. Over that summer, Spurs were busy in the transfer market signing Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

The Cameroonian started ahead of Lee and as the August transfer window started to shut, Roma came in for the player. Lee travelled to the Italian capital and looked likely to sign. He had, however, a last-minute change of heart. He has never explained the reasons for the u-turn, beyond saying that it was not about money, leading to a rash of rumours in his homeland that it was about religion.

It was soon forgotten as Lee was back in the team and playing well but the arrival of Gareth Bale in the summer of 2007 was another competitor and with the departure of Martin Jol, Lee, like all players, had to wait to see how the expected Juande Ramos-revolution would play out. Lee kept his place in the team till the turn of the year but has featured little since.

The expected return to PSV Eindhoven didn’t materialise and despite numerous reports in the Seoul media that the player was heading for a reunion with Jol at Hamburg, Lee surprised everyone by signing a one-year deal with Borussia Dortmund. The 1997 European champions were in the market for a left-back following the serious injury sustained by Brazilian star Dede in the recent 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen. Playing time shouldn’t be a problem at the club looking to return to the upper echelons of the Bundesliga after a number of, by Dortmund’s high standards, mediocre seasons

Time on the pitch is paramount. Lee’s inaction put his place in the national team under threat for the first time in years. At the age of 31, the 2010 World Cup will be Lee’s last and the likes of Kim Chi-woo have already demonstrated that they have the talent and energy to take over the left side for the Taeguk Warriors. It is a little ironic then that Lee was omitted from the squad for next month’s World Cup qualifier against North Korea as the national team coach wanted to give him time to settle into his new team and new environment.

It is all new and that is why the news is welcome. With Korean stars increasingly focused on England, it is refreshing to see Lee head for Germany. It is a step out of his comfort zone and into one of the best stadiums and best leagues in the world and perhaps back into the national team.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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