It may sound a little strange now, but just a few years ago, Lee Young-pyo was almost as big a star in South Korea as Park Ji-sung. That was never likely to last and it didn’t. Lee is a solid, no-nonsense, no-headlines type defender while Park operates mostly in the opposition’s half of the field, the one that offers opportunity for glory.
More than most players however, just how impressive Lee’s career has been will only become apparent when he hangs up his cleats and we all can look back at what he did. That may happen soon because the player has said that he is contemplating retirement at age 34. “I’ve been fielding offers from many clubs, but I am also thinking of retiring,” said Lee last week as he returned to his homeland after finishing a two-year spell in Saudi Arabia with Al Hilal.
He may not. There are offers on the table as his agency told local media. “Lee will come home and take some time off as he plans for the future,” the agency said. “Teams in Europe and the Middle East have shown interest. We’re trying to find a team where he can be a starter, not a backup.”
Lee Young-pyo likely won’t suit up for a K-League club. (Yonhap News)
Unfortunately for fans of the K-League, one going through some tough times, he has no plans to finish his playing days where they started. That was at Anyang Cheetahs in 2000. After winning the league title, Lee worked his way into the national team for the World Cup two years later. He impressed enough to earn a move, along with Park, to PSV Eindhoven.
Both took time to settle in the southern Netherlands but before long had become firm favorites with the fans as was proved by the genuine sadness at the club when they left in the summer of 2005. Park got the chance to go to Manchester United, one of the biggest clubs in the world. Soon after, Lee, who could play on the right side or left, was off to London and Tottenham Hotspur, not quite in the same bracket as United but a big club with an impressive history.
Lauded upon his arrival in the English capital by boss Martin Jol as one of the best left-backs in Europe, Lee adapted quickly and impressed. So much so, that in the summer of 2006 he almost joined AS Roma but changed his mind at the last minute. Rumors abounded that it was for religious reasons ― he is a devout Christian ― something that has always fiercely denied.
In August 2008 after three solid years and 93 appearances in England, the defender left for former European champion Borussia Dortmund in Germany. After a season in the Ruhr Valley he made another move, this time to Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal. It is changing now but the Middle East was then almost unheard of as a destination for East Asian players but Lee settled in well and helped the team to a domestic title.
At every club he has been at fans and colleagues have been sorry to see him go. When I have the occasion to speak to people at Tottenham, they always ask about Lee and talk affectionately of him. In Riyadh too, he will be missed. An Al Hilal fan told me: “He was a true pro, the closest thing to Javier Zanetti (veteran Argentina defender) that we could ever have, a true loss, but that’s football.”
Like Park, he has been an excellent ambassador for the country as a whole. While it wasn’t reported, during his time in England he, more than once, helped out young compatriots who had journeyed west without much success.
That can’t be said of Lee Young-pyo. In the west and east he has succeeded on the pitch and just as importantly made lots of friends and won respect off it. Korean fans would love the chance to see him back home but will wish him well in whatever he decides to do.
By John Duerden , Contributing writer (firstname.lastname@example.org