Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Former Stars Staking Claim For South Korea

Lee Young-pyo congratulates Lee Keun-ho
In Korean football, you are nothing without a nickname. You don’t have to be called to the national team to get one but it helps. This season, we have seen the return to form of a number of old heads and the appearance of some long-unused aliases headlines in the huge portals.

“The Little Emperor”, “The Lion King’’, “The Millenium Kid” and “The Lord of the Ring” are all colorful movie-like monikers but they are players who are working their way back to the spotlight and into the gaze of national team coach Huh Jung-moo.

Lee Dong-guk is in the best form. The Lion King rarely roared during his time in England with Middlesbrough from January 2007 to May 2008, scoring only against lower league teams in various cup competitions. The striker, who was surprisingly overlooked by Guus Hiddink for the 2002 World Cup and then missed the 2006 tournament with a serious knee injury, is on fire.

He took a while to ignite however after his return to the Land of the Morning Calm. Lee spent the second half of last season struggling to settle in Seongnam. He moved to Jeonju in the winter and is thriving in the slightly more genteel surrounding of North Jeolla Province.

He has scored six goals in seven league games for league leaders Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and is enjoying himself once again.

“As each game passes, I feel more confident and my goalscoring instinct is returning. We have lots of games in May but if we can maintain this pace then we can get some good results.”

“There are many good players in the national team. If I was to get called up then I am confident that I could give a good account of myself.”

Could the player who was heartbroken at missing out on the 2002 and 2006 tournaments finally get his chance at 2010? There is a chance. At the moment, Lee Keun-ho seems to own one of the two striking spots in the team, the other is up for grabs.

Lee Keun-ho is in Japan after failing to find a club in Europe. He joined the struggling Jubilo iwata in April and has revitalized the club’s season with an amazing six goals and five assists in his first six games. No sooner was he banging in the goals in Shizuoka then he was linked with a move to Spanish club Malaga.

If he does go there - his agent denies it - he will hopefully have a better time in Iberia than Lee Chun-soo. ‘The Millenium Kid’ and star of the 2002 World Cup, spent time with Real Sociedad and Numancia before returning to Ulsan in 2005. He then returned to Europe in the summer of 2007 to join Dutch giants Feyenoord. He struggled to settle by the North Sea and after a brief, and very unsuccessful spell with Suwon, he is now at Chunnam Dragons.

He is doing pretty well. Still only 27, he is one of Korea’s most talented players but one who seems to attract, and sometimes cause trouble. After his first game for the Dragons, in which he scored a fine goal, he was banned for making offensive gestures to the referee assistant. He is back in action again and playing well. “I am going to do my talking from now on the field,” he said recently for the umpteenth time. He has been as good as his word so far. Lee scored again last weekend, a fabulous shot from outside the area to win Chunnam’s third game in succession.

Another 2006 old boy that could be back in the reckoning is Cho Jae-jin. The Little Emperor featured in the third round of qualification for the 2010 World Cup but failed to impress and has been out in the cold since. The powerful forward has never really looked at home in the red shirt of the taeguk Warriors and has, in fact, usually played his best football outside Korea.

He was a star of the J-league with Shimizu S-Pulse from 2004-2007 before leaving to try his luck in Europe. Despite interest from Premier League clubs, a move never materialized. He returned to Korea and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. He was inconsistent in a green shirt and few fans complained when Asian champions Gamba Osaka paid the Jeonju team over $3 million for his services. Cho has been scoring for fun in Japan.

And what of our old friend Ahn Jung-hwan? The Lord of the Ring is too old now, at 33, to play for South Korea again but there is still life in the old dog yet. He is currently in China, in the middle of a three-month loan with fallen powerhouse Dalian Shide. Despite an attitude which at first didn’t impress the media, the striker has started to shine in the Middle Kingdom with three goals in three games and is earning plaudits everywhere he goes. He was labeled ‘World class’ by an opposition coach last week.

That may be a slight exaggeration and to be honest, South Korea lacks a real top of the range attacker but at least a number of them, at home and abroad, are coming to the boil nicely ahead of June’s three vital World Cup qualifiers.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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