It is a chicken-and-egg situation. Do clubs buy foreign forwards because there isn’t enough local talent or is there not enough local talent because clubs pack their offensive lines with overseas stars? Whatever the reason, in Japan, China and South Korea, imports usually top the goalscoring charts.
In 2008, the top four scorers in the K-league all hailed from outside the land of the Morning Calm. Things are different this time round. At present, only three foreigners make it into the top ten.
Lee Dong-guk leads the charge. The former Middlesbrough marksman didn’t score a single league goal in 18 months, from the start of 2007 to the summer of 2008, in the English Premier league. The memory of that barren spell is fading by the week as in 2009 he has found the target 11 times in just 12 matches for Jeonbuk Motors in the K-League. Every time he scores, there are more headlines about a possible return to the national team ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
That chorus reached a crescendo last weekend as Lee grabbed his second hat-trick of the season as Jeonbuk won 3-2 at the home of league leaders Gwangju Sangmu in an entertaining Jeolla province derby.
"There is lots of time left (before the World Cup) and the national team is watching,” said the man himself. “If I keep doing well then good things could happen.”
"Lee Dong-gook is ready to play for the national team at any time," said Jeonbuk coach Choi Kang-hee.
It is a testament to Lee’s mental strength that he has bounced back after a fairly terrible three years. In fact, it even goes back further than that. As a youngster, he was the star of the 2000 Asian Cup and it was expected that he would lead the Korean frontline at the 2002 World Cup. Guus Hiddink had other ideas and surprisingly omitted the Lion King.
It was a tough blow. Not only did Lee have to watch his former team-mates become heroes at home and stars abroad, he had to start his military service just after the competition finished in the knowledge that national team members had been granted exemption for their legendary run to the semi-finals.
With the departure of Hiddink, it wasn’t long before Lee was back in the team and six months before the 2006 World Cup, he was Dick Advocaat’s main striker. Then, just two months before the tournament was due to start, he tore a cruciate ligament and dreams of Germany were over.
The following year however, things were looking up. A dream move to the most popular league in the world came Lee’s way and he became a Middlesbrough player. A hit post in his first game was the closest he came to a league goal and after his 16-month spell, there were few ‘Boro’ fans sorry to see him depart.
He ended up back in Korea with championship-chasing Seongnam at the end of last season. The short spell was not a success as the team crashed out of the title race in the play-offs. Departing coach Kim Hak-beom even said that he hadn’t wanted Lee to join the team at all.
Whatever the truth, Lee was on the move once again in January 2009 as he became a Jeonbuk Motors player. He hasn’t looked back since scoring twice in his second game with the Jeonju team. The greens are a good team to watch and offer attacking options all over the field and for the first time in three years, Lee, who is leading the line as well as ever and bringing others into attack to a much greater extent than before, is evidently enjoying his football.
After missing 2002 and 2006, Lee could just be third-time lucky when it comes to the 2010 World Cup. It is only a matter of time before he receives a recall and while he won’t be counting any chickens, the Lion King revival could be complete in South Africa next summer.
Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com