Not long ago, South Korea’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann had urged Lee Kang-in to keep his feet firmly on the ground after what he perceived as ‘pop star treatment’ given to the midfielder at home.
Based on Monday’s evidence, the 22-year-old has heeded the former German forward’s words of wisdom. The Paris St Germain starlet showed why he is emerging as his country’s next big hope, after slamming a second-half brace in South Korea’s 3-1 win over Bahrain in their Asian Cup opener.
At the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, Taeguk Warriors – seeking their first Asian title in 64 years – had struggled to justify their favourite status in the stop-start encounter, with Chinese referee Ma Ning taking the centre stage after he dished out yellow cards to three South Korean players the first half hour.
The partisan South Korean crowd at the 15,000-capacity arena – the home of Qatar giants Al Sadd – were getting jittery before Hwang In-beom put them ahead in the 38th minute. But six minutes into the second half Abdulla al-Hashash drew level for Bahrain. However, Lee struck twice in 13 minutes to seal three points for the two-time champions. Lee’s first goal was a sublime strike from 25 yards in the 56th minute, before he put the game to bed 21 minutes later, stroking a clinical finish into the bottom corner past goalkeeper Ebrahim Lutfalla.
With spotlight on Tottenham Hotspur’s forward Son Heung-min ahead of the tournament, Lee has announced his arrival in style, stealing the thunder from his captain, who struggled throughout the game on Monday and was even shown a yellow card for diving.
Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most promising prospects after he moved to Spain as a child to join Valencia’s academy and played 62 times for them in La Liga. Later, in 2021, he switched to Real Mallorca. He played in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar four times, with three appearances as a substitute. During the summer, Lee signed with PSG for 22mn euros. In September, he played a crucial role in South Korea winning the gold medal at the Asian Games – which earned him an exemption from the country’s mandatory military service.
After his brace on Monday, Lee said he was “learning a lot” and said it was “a privilege” to play with his star team-mates for club and country.
“I’m learning a lot, but it’s not just about football - I’m learning a lot off the field as well,” he said. “I try to learn as much as possible and develop into a better person and a better football player.”
“No one on our team, be it players or coaches, thought this was going to be an easy match. We had some good moments and not-so-good moments in this one. Whether we concede a goal or score a goal, we always try to keep playing our game. After giving up that goal, we just wanted to get one right back. I am just happy to have helped the team. Everyone in the locker room and people back home are waiting for this trophy we haven’t won in 64 years. We’re motivated, but it’s still too early to talk about winning the championship,” Lee observed
Lee was a peripheral figure under previous coach Paulo Bento but Klinsmann has made him central to his plans since taking over last year. The German, a World Cup winner in 1990 as a player, said Lee had provided a touch of class in an otherwise “scrappy” game that saw five South Korean players – including Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae – booked.
“He scored two goals in the opening game and he deserves to be man of the match, he had a very good performance,” said Klinsmann. “It was a tricky game. That had a lot to do with the referee giving too many yellow cards early.”
Klinsmann left Wolverhampton Wanderers forward Hwang Hee-chan out of his match-day squad. Hwang, who has scored 10 goals in the Premier League so far this season, has been struggling with a hip injury. “We are very pleased to start with three points in the tournament,” said Klinsmann. “This is the really important thing, to get three points in game one, and then you look forward to the next game.”
South Korea will meet Jordan next on Saturday while Bahrain will attempt to revive their fortunes against Malaysia.
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