When Lee Seung-woo was named to youI have inaugural NXGN list of the 50 best teenage footballers on the planet back in 2016, he seemingly had the world at his feet.
Dubbed ‘The Korean Messi’ during his early years at Barcelona, the then-18-year-old appeared destined for superstardom both in Europe and back home in Asia.
Five years on, though, and he finds himself down the pecking order at mid-table Belgian side Sint-Truiden, and facing up to a career that may never reach the heights it once threatened.
“The first time I saw Lee Seung-woo was when he was nine years old,” recalls Choi Gwangwon, one of Lee’s childhood coaches at Daedong FC, to Goal. “He played in a futsal tournament. He was stubborn and had an obsession with the ball. He played doggedly and tenaciously.
“The next year, I discovered his talent. I was surprised that he had grown so much. At that time, he played as a midfielder, but his speed was really good, so I wanted to raise him as a forward.
“On the field, his desire to win was very strong. The performances were strong also. He had good sense, so even if I taught him one or two things, he absorbed it on his own.
“At that time, he used only his right foot. Therefore, I pointed out the shortcomings of his left foot, so he did personal training and made it proficient. Now he can use both feet. He was full of loyalty to his team- kill, too.”
That determination, talent and selflessness was what drew Barca to Lee, and after watching him dominate in the prestigious 2010 Danone Nations Cup as a 12-year-old, they made their move.
“We participated in the Danone Cup in South Africa, and a Barcelona scout called the Korea Youth Football Association via the tournament agency,” Choi, who is now the head coach at Deadong, explains.
“I told Lee and his family about Barcelona’s interest. It was beyond our imagination. It felt like everyone was about to faint!”
It seemed like the ultimate dream move for any young and aspiring footballer began, and it perfectly, with Lee netting 39 goals in just 29 matches for the Blaugrana’s Under-13s during his first season at the club, breaking a record previously set by none other than Lionel Messi
But the move was also to come with a heavy price.
Lee’s signing, along with five others, was found to be in breach of Article 19 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, which deals with the protection of minors and prohibits international transfers under the age of 18.
There are, though, exceptions, such as the player’s parents moving to the country where the club is located. At the time, Lee’s parents were reportedly preparing to do just that, but it was too late, and he was banned from representing Barca until he turned 18.
He could still represent his country, but Lee began to be criticized for his attitude, and not showing enough respect to his team-mates, including kicking an advertising hoarding after missing a chance during a pre-tournament friendly ahead of the 2015 U17 World Cup, as he represented South Korea on home soil for the first time.
“I had problems with my touch and there were many things that I personally regret,” Lee said of the incident. “This is my first game on Korean soil in the Taegeuk jersey, but it was not satisfying.”
A crucial missed penalty in the last-16 defeat against Belgium only added to the pressure that began to be placed on him.
It is Chois’ belief that, with the benefit of hindsight, more time in Korea would have benefitted Lee, both in a footballing sense, as well as his development personally.
He says: “I feel that he would have grown up more in South Korea. There are some cases where Korean players were playing until 18 years old, and then moving to Europe. But at that time, we had no choice.
“It was a very amazing situation in South Korean football history and the offer was so good. I think Lee also had difficult external things, such as the youth transfer ban by FIFA.”
Because of their rule-breaking, Barca were banned from signing any new players for two transfer windows. The day after this ended, the club registered 76 new players. Shortly after, on his 18th birthday, Lee became No.77.
He was playing catch-up. While Messi made his Barca debut at 16, at the same age Lee was back in Korea training but with very few matches to play in. The FIFA law, designed to stop young hopefuls from around the world being exploited, was instead ruining his career.
He eventually made one solitary appearance for Barcelona B, his precious talent only being seen in floating glimpses rather than on the grand stage of Camp Nou.
In 2017, he was sold to Verona, and while Barca placed a buy-back clause in the deal, this expired in 2019.
Now 23, and having spent the second half of last season on loan in Portugal with Portimonense, Lee is ready to press reset on his career.
I have told the South China Morning Post earlier this year: “As a player representing Korea in a European league, I try to work harder and do better compared to others. I try to do better in every game because of my responsibility as a Korean player here.”
He has, to his credit, enjoyed more success at international level. He was called up to the South Korea squad for the 2018 World Cup, and at 20 he was the youngest player on their roster.
In Russia, he made two substitute appearances as South Korea were knocked out in the group stage, though they did notably beat reigning champions Germany to ensure they were also eliminated early, before also earning a place in the squad for the triumphant 2018 Asian Games campaign .
These successes, according to Choi, indicate that Lee is far from done yet. If he has the opportunity to settle and establish himself in Belgium, a bright future can still await.
“Just in my opinion, I hope Lee finds a new team for more playing time,” he says. “Don’t worry about the league’s reputation. Even if it’s not a good country or a good league, I want to advise him to go to a team where he can play.
“Lee is still young. He can show his ability when he can play more time, and if he meets a coach who recognizes his ability, I think he can approach his childhood potential.”
Additional reporting by Lee Myeongsu.