Captain Lee Seung-won’s “Cinderella story” is complete, as he led South Korea to the quarterfinals. He broke the record for most attacking points by a South Korean player in a Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) tournament and earned the U-20 World Cup Bronze Ball honor.

Lee scored the game-winning goal in the 24th minute of South Korea’s 0-1 loss to Israel in the third-place match at the 2023 U-20 World Cup at La Plata Stadium in Argentina on June 12, converting a penalty kick from Bae Joon-ho. Unfortunately, South Korea fell to Israel 1-3 and finished the tournament in fourth place.

Lee finished the tournament with three goals and four assists. His three goals and four assists surpassed Lee Kang-in’s two goals and four assists, which earned him the Golden Ball (MVP) after leading South Korea to a runner-up finish at the 2019 tournament in Poland, and broke the record for most offensive points by a South Korean player at a U-20 World Cup and FIFA tournament (seven).

Rising above ‘broken toe’ misfortune

Before the tournament, Kim Eun-jung’s U-20 World Cup squad was considered the “valley generation,” a group of players who, unlike Chung Jeong-yong-ho four years earlier, had not received much attention or expectations. Many of the players hadn’t even gotten a chance to play for their national teams. However, with their unique one-team spirit and practical soccer, they defeated world powerhouses and made history by reaching the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup for the second time in a row after finishing as runners-up in the previous edition.

At the center of it all was “Ace” Lee Seung-won, who was a complete unknown until this tournament. Lee has been compared to Lee Kang-in, two years his junior and Jeong Jung-yong-ho’s ace at the 2019 U-20 World Cup in Poland, in terms of position, style of play and importance to the U-20 national team.

However, the difference between Lee Kang-in four years ago and Lee Seung-won this year is vast in terms of recognition and stature. Back then, Lee Kang-in, who was dubbed a “soccer prodigy,” had already made his debut for Valencia in the Spanish La Liga, a prestigious team in Europe’s big leagues, and was already attracting global attention. Lee Seung-won, on the other hand, was more of an unknown quantity even among Korean soccer fans.

Lee first came to prominence in 2021, when he was a senior at Deokyoung High School and won the Most Valuable Player award at the National High School Games. He received a direct offer from a professional team that year, but it was cut short when he fractured his toe while competing in the national championships in October. Lee then enrolled at Dankook University to try to rebuild his career, and in early January of this year, he was spotted by Gangwon FC.

However, the barriers to professionalism were high. Lee hadn’t even made his official professional debut in the K League yet. Throughout the first half of the 2023 season, Lee was only able to play in the fourth division with Gangwon’s B team and never received a call-up to the first team. It wasn’t just Lee Seung-won, but most of Kim Eun-jong-ho’s main players.

In order to overcome their numerical disadvantage ahead of the U-20 tournament, Kim Eun-joong opted for a more physical style of soccer, where quick transitions and counterattacks exploit the opponent’s weaknesses, even if they lose possession, and Lee Seung-won was selected as the playmaker who would serve as the core of Kim Eun-joong’s midfield and spearhead the attack.

Lee, who was also new to the U-20 national team, was proudly selected as the captain. Lee lived up to coach Kim Eun-joong’s expectations as he worked tirelessly in the midfield, maintaining offensive and defensive balance and anchoring the team with his steady passing and excellent game coordination.

But it was Lee’s ability as a ‘dead ball specialist’ that really stood out. Lee served as Kim’s designated kicker throughout the tournament, scoring two goals himself from penalties and assisting on four goals from set pieces (three corners and one free kick) to help his teammates score. Six of his seven offensive points came from static dead-ball situations. The other goal came from a through ball on the counterattack. Lee’s performance allowed South Korea to maximize their physical game, where they could lose possession to stronger opponents in each game but still turn the tide with a single shot at a crucial moment.

It’s also worth noting that he was consistent throughout the tournament. Lee started off the tournament with a goal and an assist in 메이저사이트 a win over powerhouse France. He added an assist against Honduras in the second round. The only game he didn’t score was against Gambia in the final group game, a 0-0 draw, and South Korea had already qualified for the round of 16.

Lee also had a strong tournament. He assisted on set pieces against Ecuador in the round of 16 and Nigeria in the quarterfinals. In the quarterfinals against Italy and Israel, he scored from the penalty spot, albeit in defeat. Although he did not have the dazzling individual skills and passing ability of Lee Kang-in, he was able to create synergy by utilizing his teammates at the right time, based on his concise and efficient team play and excellent tactical digestion. Lee was humbled by the comparison, saying, “It’s an honor to be called that.”

Lee became only the second South Korean player in history to win an individual award at the U20 World Cup, joining Lee Kang-in, who won the Golden Ball (tournament MVP) in Poland four years ago. In the four years since, Lee has grown into a top-notch player recognized in Europe after his stellar performance in Mallorca. Forward Cesare Cassaday (Chelsea, Italy), who won the tournament’s Golden Ball and Golden Boot, and center back Alan Maturo (Genoa, Uruguay), who won the Silver Ball, are also considered top prospects on the European stage. Winning the Bronze Ball puts Lee in the same league as these world-class prospects.

However, Lee is still just a K-4 player compared to these players and will have to face the cold hard reality when he returns to Korea. When he returns to his club, Gangwon FC, he will have to fight for a place in the first team. Unfortunately, with Gangwon battling to stay in the relegation zone this season, it’s unclear how much of a chance a youngster like Lee will get.

Players need to be given consistent playing time to develop. The experience and reputation gained from his performance at the U-20 World Cup will be a huge asset for Lee.

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