Asian Cup: Military man Lee Jeong-hyeop shooting for South Korean glory
Plucked from the obscurity of South Korea`s military soccer team, Lee Jeong-hyeop has shown he not only deserves a place in Uli Stielike`s Asian Cup squad but could one day be the answer to their chronic striking problems.
Seoul: Plucked from the obscurity of South Korea`s military soccer team, Lee Jeong-hyeop has shown he not only deserves a place in Uli Stielike`s Asian Cup squad but could one day be the answer to their chronic striking problems.
Stielike`s decision to include the raw 23-year-old in the party for Australia was met with raised eyebrows and murmurs of surprise, as the absence of injured pair Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-guk left Korea woefully short of experienced strikers.
After the embarrassment of a first-round exit at the World Cup in Brazil, South Korea have placed a premium on Asian Cup success and travelling to Australia with only three recognised centre forwards, including Lee, set the alarm bells ringing.
However, Stielike liked what he saw in Lee during a pre-tournament training camp on the Korean honeymoon island of Jeju, impressed by his pace, perpetual motion and intelligent movement off the ball.
It is difficult to remember the last time South Korea had such a powerful, mobile and old-fashioned centre forward.
In recent years, Cho Jae-jin and Lee Dong-guk possessed the aerial prowess to trouble defenders but lacked pace and mobility, while the willowy Park Chu-young`s tendency to float in and out of games infuriated fans and coaches alike.
Even in the heyday of Guus Hiddink`s 2002 World Cup team, South Korea relied on aging warhorse Hwang Sun-hong and the sublimely talented but leaden-footed Ahn Jung-hwan to lead the forward line.
There is no denying Lee still has a long way to go.
He has been guilty of poor-decision making in Australia as well as failing to hold the ball up as a target man should, but the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the side gives the Koreans a whole new dimension.
Whether it is chasing long balls into channels or harrying defenders out of possession, Lee allows South Korea to employ a more pressing, high-tempo game.
At the end of the day, however, strikers are judged on their goals, and Lee is showing he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
He marked his international debut by coming off the bench to score against Saudi Arabia in a pre-Cup warm-up and bagged the winner against Australia in his first start on Saturday, steering home Lee Keun-ho`s cross-shot from close range to seal top spot in Group A.
It is easy to see why South Korea has latched on to what local media have dubbed Lee`s "Cinderella" story.
Growing up in the southern port city of Busan, financial hardship meant Lee often had to make do with football gear handed down from team mates while his mother scrimped and saved to support his career.
Coaches praised his dedication to training, describing how he tethered a ball to a rope and practised heading it 500 times a day. He worked hardest on his weaknesses, striving to pass like a midfielder and tackle like a defender.
When he felt his career was not taking off the way it should after being drafted by K-League side Busan iPark, he even took the drastic step of changing his name at the start of last year.
Local media quoted his mother as saying he was initially named `Jeong-ki` but had changed it to `Jeong-hyeop,` which he hoped would improve his football fortunes.
With all able-bodied South Korean males obliged to fulfil almost two years of national service, Lee joined military side Sangju Sangmu on loan in January 2014 and will return to Busan when he is discharged later this year.
After getting the call-up to the national team in December, Lee described it as an "unexpected Christmas gift". He said he wanted to score in a big game in Australia and would do his level best, "even if I only play for a minute".
The whole of South Korea hopes Lee`s Cinderella story continues at the Asian Cup, but there is plenty of time for him to develop into a top class striker.
The clock is nowhere near midnight yet.