Soccer is a game that can be full of drama, excitement and cruelty on a weekly basis but there can be few players that have gone through what Lee Jung-soo has gone through in the last few days.
To appear in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League is to play in a big game, to return to your homeland and then face your former team adds extra spice but then to be involved in a controversy such as the one that happened in the first leg of the semifinal (the second leg is in Qatar on Wednesday) between Suwon Bluewings and Al Sadd last week is almost unprecedented.
Lee now plays for the Qatari team but is a familiar figure for all K-League fans ― and all Korea fans, as he scored twice for the Taeguk Warriors at the 2010 World Cup. He started out with the now-defunct Anyang Cheetahs, was then with FC Seoul, Incheon United and then Suwon. He left the Bluewings in 2008 to head to Japan. After two successful seasons in the J-League with Kyoto Sanga and Kashima Antlers, he ended up in Doha with Qatar’s most successful club.
A return to the Suwon World Cup Stadium ― the arena is the one in which he has played in more than any other ― was one that he was looking forward to this time last week.
“I am excited to be back,” he said before the first leg. “I just want to play well and put in a good performance at home.”
Al Sadd’s Lee Jung-soo (left) talks to his teammates during a match against Suwon last week.(Yonhap News)
Despite still appearing for the national team on a regular basis, fans at home barely knew where Lee had gone to play club soccer. The Qatari league receives zero coverage but after the events of last week, all are fully aware of where he plays.
Al Sadd was 1-0 ahead with 10 minutes remaining and preparing to take a vital, if slender, advantage back to West Asia for the second game. Then something unusual and highly controversial happened.
Suwon was attacking, desperate to get at least a goal back before the trip to Doha, and one of its players was down injured, along with one of the opposition. After Suwon’s initial goal attempt failed, Yeom Ki-hoon allowed the ball to go out for a throw-in so treatment could be given. While the ball then belonged to Al Sadd, the whole of the stadium expected that the Qataris would return possession to the host.
This is by no means a law of the game but it is in the spirit and regarded as an unwritten rule. It was not observed on this occasion by Kader Keita and Mamadou Niang. The Ivory Coast midfielder passed the ball into an empty Suwon half for the Senegalese striker to score past a confused-looking goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryeong. It was now 2-0, leaving Suwon a mountain to climb on Wednesday.
Then the fighting started as the incensed Suwon players protested the nature of the goal which had given Al Sadd a huge advantage for the second leg. It got worse when a home fan ran onto the field to confront the Qatari goalkeeper. Then pushing and punching became a massive free-for-all involving players and staff from both teams. It was ugly. Keita and Niang were both red carded. Suwon striker Stevica Ristic also received his marching orders. A few minutes later, Lee left the field. It was initially thought that the defender had also seen red but after the match, he explained what had happened. “I told my teammates to just give back a goal because it wasn’t fair. But they refused and I had a little fight with them,” Lee said. “I assumed our coach would substitute me, so I just left the field. We didn’t play fairly. The game was stopped and we had to give the ball back to Suwon. But Niang just continued to play. After that Keita and Niang said sorry.”
Al Sadd may not be the most popular team in Korea right now but it is felt that Lee acted with dignity. Few would be unhappy if the 30 year-old decided to leave Al Sadd and for a while after the game it seemed as if Lee may be on his way out of the club. Emotions seemed to have calmed a little since and the team’s experienced coach Jorge Fossati promised to talk to the player. “I can understand Lee Jung-soo’s feelings. But he is a professional. I want to protect him. I want to talk with him privately about the team’s situation,” said the Uruguayan.
Al Sadd’s situation is that it is close to the Asian Champions League final as it has a lead of two goals and is playing at home. For Suwon to recover from would be one of the greatest nights in the club’s history just as last Wednesday was one of the most controversial.
There will be few that wish Al Sadd well if, as expected, the Qatari team progresses to the final of the continental competition but Lee has managed to keep his reputation and seemed to keep his head when all were losing theirs.
By John Duerden, Contributing writer