Four years ago at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland, it was Lee Kang-in (Mallorca) who led South Korea to their first-ever FIFA-organized final. Lee’s “golden left foot” flashed at every crucial moment from the group stage onward, bringing world powerhouses to their knees.
Fast-forward to the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina, and captain Lee Seung-won’s (Gangwon) “golden right foot” is leading South Korea with as much presence as Lee Kang-in’s four years ago.
The attacking midfielder’s presence at the tournament has been immense. He has one goal and four assists in five games from the group stage to the quarterfinals. Lee totaled six offensive points (two goals and four assists) in seven games leading up to the final four years ago. The four assists are the most by a South Korean player in a single FIFA tournament.
What makes Lee’s record even more remarkable is that he put up similar numbers despite playing less than half of Lee’s minutes. While Lee played a total of 621 minutes in seven matches in Poland before the final, Lee played just 396 minutes in five matches before the quarterfinals. Kim Eun-joong, the head coach of the U-20 national team, is known for strictly managing his players’ playing time to conserve their stamina, and he did the same with Lee Seung-won, but he was still incredibly efficient.
Notably, all four of Lee’s assists have come from set pieces. South Korea has scored eight goals in the tournament, and Lee has been involved in half of them. Set pieces are one of the hardest things to get right, even with tons of practice, and Lee’s success rate with his right foot on crosses from any position is incredible.
Lee didn’t come from a very high-profile background. He wasn’t selected for his age group’s national team until high school, and when he joined Gangwon FC in December last year, he hadn’t even made his K1 debut and had only experienced the K4 League, where Gangwon’s B team plays.
But Kim, who gave Lee his first cap when he enrolled at Dankook University early last year, was impressed. Although he wasn’t flashy, he had the physical strength, mobility, and fundamentals of a midfielder, and he was hardworking and sincere. Kim’s trust in Lee has earned him the captain’s armband, and his leadership is recognized by his teammates, as he never steps up to the plate but quietly supports them. When Lee had to leave the field in the quarterfinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-20 Asian Cup in March against China due to injury, the starters posed for a photo with Lee’s jersey in the semifinals, a sign of how his teammates feel about him. 안전놀이터
Four years ago, Lee didn’t lead South Korea to victory, but his dominant performance earned him the Golden Ball, the tournament’s most valuable player (MVP) award. This time around, Lee could be a strong Golden Ball contender if he can lead his team to the final. Once a quiet, low-key player, Lee is now the center of attention around the world.