Back To Top
Sports

Youngest player on men's Olympic football team wants nothing less than gold in Tokyo

South Korean midfielder Lee Kang-in warming up for practice at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul in Gyeonggi Province on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
South Korean midfielder Lee Kang-in warming up for practice at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul in Gyeonggi Province on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
PAJU -- When it comes to competing at international tournaments, South Korean midfielder Lee Kang-in doesn't speak in general terms -- about doing his best and letting the result take care of itself, or things of that nature.

When the 20-year-old puts on the national team jersey, he only wants to win the biggest prize available. For the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, that means bringing home the gold medal.

"It's not just me; I believe everyone who enters a tournament as big as the Olympics will want to finish at the top," Lee told reporters Tuesday before practice at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul in Gyeonggi Province. "I've been trying to maximize my strengths, no matter what the situation. And I'd be ecstatic if I can help the team."

Lee is the youngest player on the 22-man Olympic squad coached by Kim Hak-bum. The men's Olympic football tournament in Tokyo is open to players at 24 or under, with the exception of up to three players per team over that limit.

The precocious youngster was also the youngest player for South Korea at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup. He was only 18 then, but he won the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament after helping South Korea to a runner-up finish. It remains South Korea's best performance at a FIFA men's tournament.

"The Olympic tournament is as important as the U-20 World Cup, and we're all working toward our ultimate goal," Lee said. "It's no different this time. We want to win the title."

Lee is so driven that, even though he will be eligible for the next Olympics in 2024, he will carry a veteran's mindset into Tokyo.

"I am preparing for this Olympics as if it will be my last," he said. "I am not thinking about the future. I am only concentrating on the present."

Lee is one of South Korea's most gifted playmakers at any age group. Some of his Olympic teammates have said that, when Lee has the ball, they can just keep their head down and run to open space, because Lee will often find them with a perfectly-threaded pass.

As important as on-field skills are, Lee said building camaraderie with his older teammates is a critical part of the equation.

"I love being around my teammates here," said Lee, who's known to pull occasional pranks on other players. "Maybe they find me annoying at times, but they usually take it well. I want to do well with these guys and build lasting memories."

Lee has been with the Spanish club Valencia CF since 2017, starting with their B squad as a 16-year-old, and has been subject to transfer rumors this summer.

Lee insisted his club career can wait.

"Right now, it doesn't matter where I am going to end up next," Lee said. "My focus is on the Olympics." (Yonhap)
MOST POPULAR