The line between success and failure is a fine one, especially in the English Premier League, generally regarded as the world’s top football competition. In the case of South Korean striker Lee Dong-guk, that line was about as wide as a goalpost.
The Lion King moved to Qiu Qiu Middlesbrough in January 2007. His debut came a month later against Reading. Lee was introduced as a substitute with around eight minutes remaining. Seven minutes later, England international winger Stewart Downing fired over a perfect cross from the left side. Lee was unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box and let fly with his right foot. He wasn’t the only one in the stadium to put his head in his hands after the ball bounced off the post and rolled agonizingly away.
Though he wasn’t to know it at the time, that was the closest Lee was ever going to come to scoring a goal in the world’s richest league and things could have been a lot different. As it stands, the striker is about to be shipped out of England’s northeast. If there was any doubt about that, it was dispelled last week by head coach Gareth Southgate.
“… He has not played as well as we might have hoped,” said the former England captain. “For him and for the team I think it’s been better to involve other players really.”
The softly-spoken Southgate has given the Korean ample opportunities to prove that he has what it takes. Eight starts and 15 substitute appearances may not be as much as the player wanted but in the modern high-pressure world of elite football where coaches can be fired after three or four poor results, it is more than many get.
With Lee’s contract finishing in May; it is now time to move to another club though finding one in the Premier League could prove to be as fruitless as his attempts to find the net. The 29 year-old may have to look elsewhere.
The player has already indicated that he has no desire to return to the K-League and former club Pohang Steelers. There will be possibilities however, there always are. Lee’s reputation has taken a bit of a battering in recent months but the striker has proven in the past that he can score against top-class international opposition such as Germany, Sweden and Mexico.
Lee could be best served by moving to the mainland, perhaps the Netherlands. He may not be the only Korean heading south across the North Sea. Tottenham Hotspur’s Lee Young-pyo has played more Premier League games than any of his compatriots but has recently fallen out of favor at the London club.
With time on the bench accumulating, it didn’t take the defender long to start thinking fondly of former club PSV Eindhoven, in the manner of a cheating husband who has realized that the grass on the other side of the fence may be green and glamorous but it quickly forgets those who don’t play on it. “ PSV are my team, I miss them a lot,” he said recently. For its part, the Dutch club is ready to forgive Lee who publicly demanded a transfer out of the southern Netherlands back in the summer of 2005.
According to reports, PSV technical director Stan Valckx said recently: “He was a good player for us and will always be welcomed here. His contract does not expire until 2009, so it is still a long way to go. But if he wants to leave before then, then we are very interested.”
Of the remaining two players in England’s top league, Seol Ki-hyeon is also very likely to be on the move. The mercurial attacker hasn’t played for London club Fulham since January 19. Seol has flattered to deceive in England and his time there looks to be running out.
It is not all doom and gloom because there is the small matter of Park Ji-sung at Manchester United. The 27 year-old has featured heavily in recent games for the club which is in touching distance of glory both in England and in Europe.
Games don’t come much bigger than a European Champions league semi-final against Barcelona and Park is likely to play at least some part in both legs, the first of which takes place Wednesday evening in Spain. A proud Korean media is hardly daring to contemplate the possibility of the Park playing in the biggest club game in the world in Moscow at the end of May.
Such an event would more than make up for the struggles of his three Premier League companions.