Name: Lee Young-Pyo
Born: 23 April 1977 in Hongcheon (Korea Republic)
Club career: 2000-2002: Anyang LG Cheetahs 67 league appearances, 3 goals, 2002-2005: PSV Eindhoven 82 league appearances, 1 goal. 2005-2008: Tottenham Hotspur 70 league appearances, 0 goals.
International career: Made debut for Korea v Mexico in June 1999. 94 caps, five goals. Played at 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups™.
Honours: Korean K-League (2000), Korean Super Cup (2001), Dutch Eredivisie (2003, 2005) Dutch KNVB Cup (2005)
Close to the century
Lee Young-Pyo, one of the two Koreans who have blazed a trail in European football, stands on the cusp of joining that elite group of players who have won more than 100 caps for their country.
Reaching that landmark appears to be guaranteed for Lee, a fast and skilful full-back, even if his football club future at Tottenham looks to be less than certain. Lee first burst onto the world stage as part of that marvellous Korea Republic team that reached the semi-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™. Guus Hiddink, that hugely talented Dutch coach, identified two outstanding players from his team and when he left the Korea side to take over at PSV Eindhoven, he ensured that both Lee and Park Ji-Sung, an attacking midfielder, came with him. It was not long before they had both established themselves as important members of a team that won two Eredivisie titles and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.
As always happens when a Dutch side progresses so far in European competition, the big football clubs of England, Spain and Italy were alerted to the quality of players in the PSV ranks and when Hiddink moved on, an exodus ensued. Park went to Manchester United, Arjen Robben to Chelsea, Mark van Bommel to Barcelona and Johann Vogel to AC Milan.
Lee was targeted by several Italian football clubs, but he had enjoyed the Dutch approach to football so when Martin Jol approached him to join Tottenham, it was an easy decision for the defender to make. Jol had a huge regard for Lee too, saying: “He’s played in the Champions League and is the best left-back in Holland. A number of Italian clubs would have liked to have taken him.” Lee was not just a left-back either – naturally right-footed, he could easily change flanks and play in midfield too. The move to London paid off for both Lee and Spurs as Tottenham mounted a concerted effort to break the stranglehold of the four top clubs who have dominated the Champions League qualification spots.
The end of his first season brought yet another attempt from an Italian club to sign him, and this time Lee came close to joining Roma before changing his mind and deciding to stay at Tottenham. Lee, a devout Christian, denied reports that his religious beliefs had prevented him from moving, citing unspecified personal reasons. “I was very close to going to Italy but negotiations fell through at the last minute,” he said at the time. It was good news for Tottenham, as they mounted their best league campaign for many years and only missed out on fourth place on the final day of the season. But the start of the 2007-08 football season proved to be different, and a watershed for both Lee and Jol.
Expectations that Tottenham would improve even further were dashed by a terrible start to the season and Jol’s contract was terminated. Juande Ramos’ arrival from Seville heralded a fresh approach to the team, and Lee has been one of those who has found his involvement in the first team limited. Once again, clubs in Italy’s SerieA have been alerted to his availability, while others in England will also be tempted by a seasoned Premier League defender when the transfer window re-opens. It would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for Lee to return to PSV — the club’s technical director Stan Valckx recently expressed his interest in bringing back the former fans’ favourite. Lee himself said recently: “PSV will always be my team. My contract with Tottenham expires this summer and I will decide what I will do then. But I am still missing PSV every day.”
BEFORE THE END OF 2008
Lee’s main focus for the rest of the year though is to join the 100 club and help Korea qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ again. He had 94 caps, and five goals, before the qualifier against neighbours Korea DPR on March 26 so the century should be within his grasp before the end of 2008. That would see him level with Lee Woon-Jae but still a long way short of the legendary Hong Myung-Bo, who played at four FIFA World Cups™ and achieved the total – astonishing for an outfield player – of 135 caps. Having just turned 31, time is running out for Lee if he is to get anywhere near that mark but the re-appointment of Huh Jung-Moo as coach of the Korea Republic national team should at least help. It was Huh who first called Lee up for the Taeguk Warriors and has already shown his faith in the full-back. Lee said: “Huh is not only the football coach of Korea but he also knows the Korean players very well. With his leadership skills we can show our ability at the 2010 FIFA World Cup”‘. When I was first called up to the national team, Huh was the coach and in two years we lost just three games. We usually won so I have good memories of that time.” For any footballer, achieving 100 caps is a remarkable success story. Except for Lee, this story is far from over.