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Jeonbuk's Lee Jae-sung Heads to Europe

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors Lee Jae-sung transfers out of the K League 1

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors central midfielder Lee Jae-sung has today confirmed his much touted move to Europe, where he is set to ply his trade for 2.Bundesliga outfit Holstein Kiel. The Korean international and reigning K League MVP will now look to further develop his talent and hopefully fulfil the potential he is believed to possess.



“That number 17's good, ain't he?”


It's easy for bubbles to form around you when you support a team, with players’ abilities heightened to the point of world beaters in your perception, and no one able to convince you otherwise that you are perhaps seeing things through filtered vision. I, for one, personally still believe Micah Richards was not given a decent chance in the England squad purely because he was playing at a then mid-table Manchester City. But I digress.

Yet it is only when you bring an outsider into your circle for them to positively remark upon the same player that you realise you are not the only one who has picked up on it. I had lived in Jeonju for a year by this point, and was certainly no stranger to the talents Lee Jae-sung offered, but it was only inviting someone to watch their first K League match after a lifetime of following the English leagues that you start to think he might actually be pretty decent.

And to be fair, I kind of knew that already. Despite being only his second campaign, the hype was certainly building around the player by this point. Later that year Lee Jae-sung would claim the league's Young Player of the Season award, cementing his reputation as one of the standout talents in the division.

I began writing for this site shortly after, at the start of the 2016 season, and it feels as if I have spent the majority of the time since preparing for this article. In my first piece I said the following about the midfielder:
A brighter future away from the K-League potentially beckons for this young talent. While he has stated he wants to win the Champions League with Jeonbuk, if a club from overseas came knocking, offering an opportunity for him to develop his potential further, then even the most hard-nosed supporter would not stand in his way. Enjoy watching him while he is here, he really is one of the league's most promising players.
Not a lot has changed since I wrote that, other than Jeonbuk did claim the Champions League title that season, yet it took another 18 months before a transfer emerged.

But emerge it eventually did. It seemed inevitable in the end, but that will not make the news any easier to digest for supporters of the North Jeolla club. Having helped his side claim three league titles, one continental crown, as well as picking up individual honours and the much sought after military exemption, there is no doubt that the 25 year-old has earned his chance to test himself at a higher level.

Because of this, Lee’s transfer will garner no ill will from the supporters or the club. Lee’s move is one of those increasing rarities in football where all involved acknowledge it is best for his career to challenge himself elsewhere and develop the extraordinary talent he has proven countless times to possess.

Yet, what does rankle is the feeling that this move sells the player's talents short considerably. Lee has also moved to a club that was denied promotion to the top tier of German football last season and will undoubtedly be challenging for it again this campaign. Given the role he has played in his club’s success in becoming one of the toughest forces to be reckoned with in Asia however, it does seem somewhat of an underwhelming choice.

Playing History


Lee Jae-sung came onto the professional scene in 2014, making his debut under the recently returned Choi Kang-hee in what turned out to be a title-winning season for the club.  Despite his inexperience, the manager backed the player, as he has done with several young talents before and since, and handed him 26 starts in addition to 7 in the AFC Champions League. Lee would score his first goal for the club in a 4-1 demolition of Gyeongnam FC, and score four more across all competitions that season.


That season also saw him called up for the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, in which the South Korea squad lifted gold after an emotional final with their northern neighbours, thus giving all members of the squad military exemption and opening up career possibilities that many Korean players are not afforded. Lee would start in nearly every game for the South Korea squad, and it would not be long before he would be considered for the senior side.

Lee’s second season saw his club claim the league title once more, yet their elusive pursuit of the AFC Champions League title was cut short at the quarter final stage after a losing in the dying minutes to J.League outfit Gamba Osaka. His performances drew plaudits from across the league however, resulting in the midfielder lifting the K League Young Player of the Season trophy for his efforts.

2015 also saw the midfielder earn his first senior caps for career, making his international debut in a 1-1 friendly against Uzbekistan. Four days later, he would make his second appearance, scoring the winning goal against New Zealand. Lee would later be called up to the EAFF E-1 Football Championship (East Asian Cup) in China, where South Korea would go on to lift the trophy.

The midfielder opted to stay another season at Jeonbuk, despite his growing reputation, in order to help claim continental glory. The squad was bolstered heavily for another stab at the Asian title once more. Jeonbuk would eventually lift the Champions League title that year having not lost a single home game, yet would suffer disgrace domestically. Despite having gone 33 games unbeaten, one of the club’s scouts would be found guilty for bribery offences committed in 2013, resulting in a nine point deduction and subsequently losing the title race. Regardless of Jeonbuk's previous off-field misdemeanours, Lee would feature heavily for his club once more, placing in the season's best eleven alongside two of his Jeonbuk teammates in midfield.

With the AFC taking the decision to deny Jeonbuk the opportunity to defend their title, Lee Jae-sung was once again tipped to leave in the off-season along with other club heroes Leonardo and Kwoun Sun-tae. Lee stayed though with the thought that he would be able to find better opportunities abroad the following summer.

Twenty four hours prior to the season's kick-off though, the midfielder suffered a hairline fracture on his shin, ruling him out for the first few months of the campaign and potentially damaging any chance of a move in the following window. Lee stayed the full length of the season and, despite the injury, had his best domestic campaign in Jeonbuk colours. He scored eight goals and provided ten assists as his side sailed to reclaim their league title despite his early season absence, claiming the K League's MVP award ahead of hotly tipped favourite Johnathan.


His season would get even better as South Korea held on to their East Asian Cup title in December, with Lee scoring once and claiming the tournament's best player award.

With 2018 being a World Cup year, Lee Jae-sung decided to stay at Jeonbuk for just a while longer, making sure he would get enough game time to guarantee his seat on the plane to Russia. Yet again, he proved to be the stand out player in Jeonbuk green. Naturally, Korea manager Shin Tae-yong called upon his services in the summer, and the player finally made his World Cup debut.

Lee featured in all three of Korea's group games before they returned home, with his performances best described as solid rather than standout. Since returning to his club, he has mostly featured on the bench as exhaustion crept in and his manager's concern grew. He leaves Jeonbuk however in a fine position, fourteen points clear at the league summit, and in the quarter finals of the AFC Champions League.

The Right Move?


When his fellow compatriot and similarly skilled Kwon Chang-hoon moved to Ligue Un last season, it was for supposedly double Lee’s reported transfer fee of €1.5 million, with Kwon not even possessing the military exemption that Lee currently has. At the time of his move, Kwon had just finished in the K League's best eleven alongside Lee, and the fact that he has adapted very well to life at Dijon demonstrates the level that Lee could be playing at.

By moving to the German second tier, as the K League’s reigning MVP, does not just undermine his talents, but sets an unwanted precedent for future breakout players in the league. If the best player in the Korean division, not even in his peak years, has talent equivalent to that of a recently promoted 2.Bundesliga side, then it subsequently devalues the K League and the perceived ability of the talent it possesses.


This should not matter to Lee personally though, for it is not really his burden to continue carrying the reputation of the league given how much he has helped to develop it, but he should be concerned about his career path from here. He will certainly be assuming that he will warrant a starting place in his new squad, and therefore should receive plenty of game time. It will likely be at least another season though before he can consider moving to a higher level though, either through helping Holstein Kiel earn promotion or attracting alternative suitors.

There were also reportedly other offers and interest from elsewhere for the midfielders services, including three English Premier League clubs according to his manager Choi Kang-hee, but the level or tiredness the player was suffering from going into the World Cup meant that he was unable to fully showcase his talents on the global stage, leading to the withdrawal of higher level offers.

At the World Cup, Lee had played the second most club minutes for the Korean National Squad, only bettered by Son Heung-min. Unlike Son, Lee had also been called upon in December to represent his country in the EAFF E-1 Championships and also at an unnecessary national team training camp based in Turkey the following month, thereby forgoing most of his down time and pre-season preparations for his club. It is telling that, since returning from Russia, he has mostly featured as a substitute for the club due to the manager’s fears of him burning out.

However, in his desperation to try his hand in Europe before it became too late, Lee Jae-sung opted to take the only concrete opportunity on the table. The club, having always said they would let him move overseas, accepted the offer for the player allowing him to undertake the transfer.

Regardless of whether it is the right move or not though, Lee has proved himself repeatedly to be an incredibly promising talent. The chances are he is likely to demonstrate this at his new club and will continue to develop, perhaps just not at the pace everyone initially expected. On countless occasions, Lee has been able to perform when the pressure is at its highest, and it will be this will and determination he possesses which will decide if this transfer ultimately proves to be a success.

A Personal Note


Having watched Lee Jae-sung on a near-weekly basis, whether it be from the stands, on television or behind the keyboard, the number of occassions I have looked to him in times of anxiousness, knowing that he possesses the skills to turn a match on it's head, seem too many to recall. However, it is that what he offered the fans, hope. While many teams' supporters will have their equivalents, Lee could provide the hope for champions, delivering when needed and lifting a stadium into unbridled delight.

It is difficult to pick out a single match as an example that fully embodies his contribution as a whole to the club, but perhaps Jeonbuk’s recent 2-0 victory over Buriram United best shows how vital he still is. With Jeonbuk needing to turn around a goal deficit from the first leg, the North Jeolla side bombarded the visitors’ goal for 90 minutes. You need only look at how often he was involved in the build up of the many goal scoring opportunities to see how integral he is to Jeonbuk’s attacking swagger, but his late free kick to double the lead on the night and secure passage to the quarter finals surely serves as the convincer.



His ability to think quickly and differently to change the game is what made him shine not just above his peers within the K League, but also across Asia. His eye for a killer pass and his ability to do something special when the pressure is seemingly at its highest made him Jeonbuk’s stand out player for nearly the last half decade. While you will find no fan at the club willing him to leave, you will also be hard pressed to find any who would begrudge him a move to a greater challenge, a move which he has more than earned. He is a player that has embodied the club, pouring his heart into every match and has played a massive role in Jeonbuk’s domestic and continental dominance over the last five seasons. While his departure will break many hearts, and Asia will be poorer without his presence, it is not hard to wish him well as his is a talent that deserves to soar.

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