|Lee Chung-yong plays for German Bundesliga second-tier team Bochum in this 2018 file photo. The winger celebrates the 10-year anniversary of his big move to Europe this year. He has played mostly in the English Premier League for Bolton Wanderers and Crystal Palace FC. Korea Times file|
By John Duerden
Lee Chung-yong is one of the most naturally talented players to come out of Asia in the 21st century.
This month the twinkle-toed winger celebrated the 10-year anniversary of his big move to Europe and that is an achievement not to be sniffed at. Even so, he may wonder what might have been.
Now 31, Lee made his debut in the K League in 2006 for FC Seoul and soon established himself as one of the leading talents in the competition. He was a familiar and exciting sight on the wing, with his blue or silver boots and love of dribbling. It soon became apparent that he was destined for bigger stages.
Lee's talent had been known for some time. He was encouraged to drop out of middle school, an unusual and risky thing to do in South Korea. If he failed to make it as a soccer player, then a host of other jobs would be out of reach. But dropping out also meant he avoided military service and became even more attractive to European clubs.
He was soon called up to the national team and showed that playing on the international stage was not an issue as he made his debut for Korea in 2008. In August 2009, he was signed by Bolton Wanderers. These days the club from the northwest of England is broke and in the third tier but back then it was an established English Premier League club.
Lee soon settled, winning fans over with his exciting wing play and all-round excellent attitude. Throw in some vital goals, and the mutual love affair was almost complete.
For Bolton fans, the only dark shape on the horizon was that Lee was attracting interest from bigger clubs. Liverpool was one such party and, at the end of the 2010-11 season, Lee's agent was confident that the 2011-12 campaign would be the last in the white of the Wanderers. There was, however, a major spanner in the works in a pre-season friendly game in July 2011 as Lee suffered a severe leg break following a bad tackle from Tom Miller of Newport County.
Lee returned to action the following April but, in truth, was never the same again. Some of the speed and swagger had gone and the dream of a move to Liverpool had vanished.
Bolton was relegated to the second tier in 2012 and Lee stayed with the team until 2015, when Crystal Palace provided a return to the Premier League. But playing time in London was hard to come by.
Last year Lee moved to the second tier of German soccer with Bochum but fans back home would love to see him return to Seoul, where it all began. Older and wiser, Lee would be a welcome asset to the K League.
Whatever happens, however, there is no doubt that Lee has had an excellent European career, even if it did not quite manage to reach the heights that once seemed possible. Still, not many Asian players manage a decade at a good European level.