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Retiring football legend says mental, not physical, issues pushed him into retirement

JEONJU -- Even at the age of 41, Lee Dong-gook has felt great physically in his 23rd professional football season.

But the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors legend and K League's career scoring leader, in making his retirement official Wednesday, said he no longer has the mental toughness necessary to survive the grind.

"I know a lot of people may assume that I am quitting because of my injury, but I am fully recovered and feeling great," Lee said at a press conference at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, 240 kilometers south of Seoul. He hurt his knee during practice in July and missed two months. He announced his intention to retire through a team press release Monday.

"During rehab, I found myself rushing to get back and getting easily frustrated," Lee said. "That got me thinking about retirement. I could handle physical pains, but I couldn't stand how I was losing my mental edge."

Lee is going down as the greatest goal scorer in South Korean club football history. He has netted 228 goals in a career that began in 1998 with Pohang Steelers. Lee is the only four-time MVP in K League history and is also the only player to have won an MVP, Rookie of the Year, scoring title and assist title over a career.

Lee has won seven K League championships, all of them with Jeonbuk, who he joined before the 2009 season. 

They're on the cusp of another title this season, needing only a draw against Daegu FC on Sunday to claim a record fourth consecutive championship. Lee will make that his last-ever K League appearance.

"This is playing out like someone has scripted it for me. How many players would get to retire with a championship trophy in their hands?" Lee said. "If I could do that, it would be so great.

If it's tears of joy, I can cry them all day."

Though Jeonbuk only need one more point to beat out rivals Ulsan Hyundai FC for the title, Lee said, "We'll try to win the title with three points."

Lee also left his mark internationally. He represented the country at the 1998 and 2010 FIFA World Cups. He is tied for 10th with 105 international caps and fourth with 33 goals.

According to the Korea Football Association (KFA), Lee has appeared in a total of 844 matches, at both the club and international levels, and has tallied 344 goals. Both are records by a South Korean player.

"I only found out this morning that I've played in over 800 matches," Lee said. "You can't get to that point by playing well for a couple of years. I had to perform consistently for 10, 20 years. I think that particular mark will stay with me a long time."

Lee said receiving his first professional uniform from Pohang, with No. 33 and his name written on the back, was one of the most memorable moments of his career. He was so thrilled that he slept in the shirt for a few days.

Lifting his first K League championship trophy in his first year with Jeonbuk in 2009 is another personal favorite for Lee.

At the other end of the spectrum, Lee said he was devastated when he was famously left off the 2002 World Cup squad. The tournament was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan and Lee, then a hotshot 23-year-old with obvious offensive talent, was overlooked by then-head coach Guus Hiddink.

"I think that painful memory from 2002 fueled me," Lee said.

"It helped me play this sport for a long time."

He looked primed for a selection for the 2006 World Cup, but he tore a knee ligament just two months before that tournament.

"I remember giving everything I had for the 2006 World Cup because I didn't want to have a repeat of 2002," Lee recalled.

"Then I got hurt. It was so crushing, and I don't want to think about it too much."

While he has had his tough moments, Lee said he made sure he wouldn't stay down for too long.

"I reminded myself I was still happy doing what I was doing," he said. "I've been able to overcome adversity that way."

Lee had a brief and largely unsuccessful stint in the Premier League. He didn't score in 23 league appearances for Middlesbrough from 2006 to 2008, at a time when he was still dealing with effects of an earlier knee injury.

"If I had to go back in time, I still would have made the same decision to go to the Premier League," Lee said. "I do wonder how things would have turned out if I had been healthier. But I always tell young guys to pounce on an opportunity if they get one to play overseas."

Lee said he hasn't thought too much about his post-playing future, with his focus only on Sunday's match. Though he's working toward a coaching certificate, Lee said he isn't yet thinking about jumping into coaching right away.

"I have mixed feelings about this. I am sad but at the same time, I am excited about what lies ahead," he said. "I've been taking it one match at a time without looking down the road, and trying to set a good example for younger guys. Along the way, I've forgotten how old I was. As a professional, you always have to win competition and try to maximize strengths, instead of addressing your weaknesses. If you can develop something that separates you from others, you can play this game a long time." (Yonhap)