If it wasn’t for the eagle eye of Anyang Elementary School’s football coach, Korea may never have discovered one of its finest football talents.
Spotting a young Lee Young-pyo playing with friends in the school yard, the coach encouraged him to join the school football team.
“The school coach saw me playing soccer and suggested to join the school club,” Lee recalled.
“I was in a track and field team at that moment. I loved running with the ball, so I decided to join the soccer team.”
It proved to be a wise decision and was the beginning of a great journey.
Lee, now 37, grew up in Hongcheon, a small village in the Gangwon Province of South Korea.
“We were in a very small village in the middle of mountain,” he explained to Football Channel Asia.
“Hongcheon is very small, I think about 300 people lived there at that time.
“There were not many friends, but my family. I don’t remember much other than playing everyday, fishing and swimming.”
His family – he was one of six children – moved to Anyang, closer to Seoul, in 1985. Lee was eight when he started attending Anyang Elementary School.
After graduating high school, Lee attended Konkuk University in Seoul and played for their football team. In June 1999, still at university and before even making a professional appearance, he was called up by Huh Jung-moo for the national team. Lee made his debut against Mexico in the opening match of the final edition of the Korea Cup, coming off the bench in the first half to replace Choi Sung-yong.
“It was my dream-come-true day,” he recalled.
While he would go on to play 127 times for his country, putting him third on the all-time list behind Hong Myung-bo (136) and Lee Woon-jae (133), the emotions he experienced in his debut remained for each of his 126 caps thereafter.
“As I played more, I realised that every game meant so much more than me feeling great about playing the match,” he said.
“I valued the playing time more and more as the time went by. Every match was meaningful to me in many different ways.”
After joining his local club Anyang LG Cheetahs (now FC Seoul) in 2000, Lee shot to fame at the 2002 FIFA World Cup – the moment South Korean football came alive. Lee remembers it well.
“I never knew that soccer could have such a huge impact in every possible way,” proclaimed a clearly proud Lee.
“Everyone in Korea was going through the same feeling. We were on the same page. Soccer brought the whole country together.”
Lee made his mark as one of the stars of the tournament for Korea as they shocked the world in their run to a semi-final appearance. It nearly wasn’t to be for Lee, who unfortunately a knee injury at training the day before Korea’s opening match against Poland.
Pim Verbeek, then South Korea’s assistant coach, recalls the efforts to restore Lee to fitness for the tournament.
“One day before the first match against Poland he got injured at training and the medical staff told us that, with this knee injury, his World Cup was over even before it has started,” he told Football Channel Asia.
“One of my best Dutch friends, John Langendoen, was visiting me during the World Cup and he is a fantastic physio. I asked him to give a second opinion and he told us that he will have [Lee] YP fit in a week.
“When we played our first match against Poland in Busan, YP and this physio worked the whole day and night and also the rest of the week almost 24/7.
“Within a week, YP was fit to play, had a great World Cup, made a transfer to PSV and had a great career in Europe. Sometimes, you need a little luck to be successful, because without my friend John, the career of YP could have been completely different.”
While they would eventually fall to Germany in the semi final and again to Turkey in the third place playoff, Korea had announced itself on the world stage.
But for the national team, that was ultimately as good as it got. Despite riding a wave of euphoria, they couldn’t back up their efforts in 2006 in Germany, and the AFC Asian Cups in 2004 and 2007 came and went without success.
The failure to build from their high in 2002 still doesn’t sit well with Lee, a determined individual who always strived to be the best at everything he did.
“One thing I can say, maybe, is that Korean national team could’ve been better, especially in Asia,” he says somewhat regretfully.
“We were a really great team, but could’ve improved a lot better during my time. We could’ve become the strongest team in Asia during my time. We were very close.”
While the national team didn’t manage to kick on from that moment, Lee certainly did, joining South Korea head coach Guus Hiddink and compatriot Park Ji-sung in a move to Dutch giant PSV Eindhoven.
Verbeek, academy director at PSV Eindhoven when Lee and Park joined the club, had no doubts that Lee would make it and believes that Park, best remembered for his time at Old Trafford with Manchester United, can thank Lee for his success in Europe.
“Like every Korean player, he was very ambitious to improve and loved to train and to work hard to get better and better,” Verbeek recalls.
“So, as a coach, he was fantastic to work with. When he came to PSV Eindhoven, there were some doubts if he could handle the European style of playing and also if he could adapt to the European lifestyle.
“But from day one he won the respect of all players and media, because of his enormous drive to train (hard) and to be a better player. And also his extrovert attitude and the fact he spoke reasonable English made him very popular in a short time.
“I have always said that Park Ji-sung – who spoke no English at all and was a very shy person outside the pitch – must very grateful that he had YP beside him during his years in Holland, because all by himself Ji-sung would have never survived in Europe.”
Just two years later, Lee was on his way to England to join up with Martin Jol at Tottenham, with Jol describing Lee as “the best left back in Holland.”
After three impressive seasons in the Premier League, Lee moved back to the continent in 2008, signing with Germany’s Borussia Dortmund before surprising everyone less than 12 months later with a move to Saudi Arabian and Asian giants Al Hilal.
When his contract in the Middle East expired, many thought Lee would return home and finish his career in the comfortable surrounds of Korea, especially given he had a young family.
He surprised everyone when he signed for Major League Soccer side Vancouver Whitecaps. Looking back, Lee says it was the best decision he’s ever made.
“Soccer itself is very important, but what matters more is that who I play with,” Lee says with the value of experience.
“If I look back, I can say that it [the move to Vancouver] was a great decision I made.”
In fact, of all the successes he had as a player, Lee lists his farewell match at Vancouver as the stand-out moment of his career.
“There are many moments to remember, such as the 2002 World Cup, raising multiple club trophies and so on,” he said.
“The one moment I can remember is the retirement day. It was a beautiful match with a beautiful ending.”
His decision to join Vancouver wasn’t purely a football decision, Lee explained, as he had one eye on his post-football career.
“It was an agreed decision with the family. However, I came because I wanted to learn from MLS,” Lee, who now works in the Whitecaps front office and preparing to complete his MBA in Sports Management, explained.
Lee has made no secret of his desire to enter football administration and wants to learn from the MLS – a league that has had remarkable growth over the last 15 years – with an ultimate plan to use that knowledge to help grow the game in Korea.
It’s a different career path than that preferred by many ex-footballers, who typically look to remain in the day-to-day grind by entering coaching.
“I have an interest in sports business more than coaching,” he said.
“Coaching is very important in football but I realised without learning the business we couldn’t continue to grow in modern professional football.
“I believe business is not [the] top priority in football but business has a lot of influence in football.”
So what has he learned so far and what lessons are there for Korea?
“Korean teams have been [focused] only [on] winning the games so far. As a result, they [K-League teams] became one of the best teams in Asia,” he explained.
“However, in the process, many fans were not able to enjoy the games. There are many more fans that could’ve enjoyed and watched the Korean teams growing [if the focus changed].
“In the current years, soccer itself is as important as the money it makes. MLS has developed a lot in the past 15 years, and soccer became a business.
“Soccer should not only be business, but at the same time, there will be no growth in soccer without money. In order to watch and play enjoyable soccer, the clubs must also focus on the business side as well.
“K-League games should not only focus on winning, but also playing games that everyone can enjoy watching.
“Marketing may be the key to success. The games should attract not just the fans, but also the people who do not normally come to the stadiums. Games should be exciting for everyone to enjoy.”
With interest in Korean football waning in recent years, there is great hope that Lee will take up a role with the Korea Football Association and bring his knowledge and experience to help revitalise the game.
Alongside his studies, Lee has also entered the media landscape and was a popular pundit on Korean network KBS during their World Cup coverage, gaining an almost cult-like status in Korea for his incredibly accurate predictions.
Lee will again join KBS in Australia next month during the AFC Asian Cup, a tournament he thinks Korea can win for the first time since 1960.
“Of course, Korea is one of the favourites (for) winning the title,” he declared boldly
“However, winning the title is not that easy, as we have not won the title in the last 40 years.
“We have a great coach, who just came on board, and stunning players in the team. They will have no trouble going to the semi final.”
While the sun may have set on his illustrious playing career, his post-football career is just starting.
Despite now splitting his time between Canada and Korea, his influence and impact on Korean football will be felt for many years to come.