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We all love a maverick. There is something refreshing about a sporting individual that breaks the mould and adds their own personal individualism to their respective disciplines. Unfortunately, the seemingly regular consequences of natural-born talent lead to arrogant egos and poor attitudes, both of which can lead to an ugly depreciation and a hindered career as a professional athlete.
Lee Seung-woo could be South Korea’s answer to David Beckham. There is a prepossessing charm about his appearance that would be a tantalising prospect for marketing executives at any professional football club. At just 21 years old, he’s the kind of pin-up poster boy that would be plastered across a multitude of Korean teenage bedroom walls, but serving as a genuine role model for many as well as a bit of eye candy.
Born in Suwon in South Korea, Lee first shot to prominence at the age of 12 during the Danone Nations Cup in Johannesburg, one of the most prestigious tournaments for young footballers and a window shopping opportunity for some of the world’s biggest clubs. The Korean finished as the top scorer, and F.C. Barcelona wasted no time in signing the young prodigy, excited by his raw talent.
In his earlier days as he navigated his way through the Barcelona youth set-up, plaudits of his ability echoed from all corners, with many comparing Lee to ‘The Korean Messi.’ When evaluating his playing style and his rapid progression, it is easy to see why. He soon began breaking the Argentinian’s youth goalscoring records, and his style appeared to share a lot of similarities; quick on his feet, skilful and an unforgiving relentlessness towards defenders – many of whom are simply left in his dust.
Lee’s international debut proved explosive after being selected as part of South Korea’s U-16 team, competing for the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship qualification. In what was a complete annihilation of the opposition defence, the 16-year-old scored four goals in the match as he continued to assert his dominance throughout the tournament. The growing hype surrounding the youngster intensified at the 2014 Under-16 Asian Championships in Thailand. Lee proved absolutely unstoppable and finished as top scorer and MVP.
Whilst causing a stir on the pitch, unfortunately, Lee was beginning to draw attention to himself off it. After being selected to represent his country on home soil for the first time in 2015, it was his reactive attitude problems that stole the focus. He kicked an advertising hoarding in frustration during a match and made his displeasure apparent after being substituted. Korean protocol amongst senior players is to bow as they leave the pitch, but Lee much preferred to sulk in silence.
This kind of behaviour quickly established Lee as a rebellious figure across the football universe. He came under critical fire from team coaches and managers in South Korea who vocalised their issues with his attitude. Lee was told that he lacked maturity and physicality, and despite his impressive performances at national level, he was quickly losing the trust of the senior players.
The drama didn’t stop there. After an investigation in 2014, FIFA ruled that Lee’s transfer was in breach of a number of regulations, resulting in a ban from competitive football until his 18th birthday – a lengthy two years away. Upon his return, the young Korean continued training with Barcelona B and featured in a single appearance, but it was quickly becoming apparent that the first team was out of his immediate grasp. In August 2017, he was sold to Italian side Hellas Verona F.C. for €1.5m, but interestingly, Barcelona issued a buy-back clause for an undisclosed fee. Their interest in the young talent still lingered, it seemed.
The move to Verona appeared to be a lesson in maturity that Lee so desperately needed. Playing against challenging opposition in the Serie A league, he quickly learned that hype and precociousness are not enough to succeed as a professional footballer. Though his goalscoring record may not have been exceptional, his consistency was improving and his attitude towards the game was that of a much more self-assured player.
It would be fair to assume that Lee would have been disgruntled to see Verona sink to the Serie B for the 2019/20 season. Having only scored one goal in 14 league appearances last season, the 21-year-old failed to replicate that same explosive individualism that allowed him to dominate so many games during his teenage years. But Lee had most certainly done enough to merit a starting spot and continued faith in his ability from Verona manager Fabio Grosso.
Lee Seung-woo has youth on his side. He’s an athlete with exceptional talent and one that is certain to relish an extremely prosperous career. It’s unlikely to be too long before the fresh-faced youngster will become a regular feature in the full South Korea side after inclusion in the national squad for the 2018 World Cup, and the prospect of an attack consisting of Lee and Heung Min Son is a compelling prospect. If he can keep the perennial attitude problems at bay, the rewards are his for the taking.