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Lee Kang-in's Career Headed to the Next Level

South Korea prepare to face Georgia in an international friendly on September 5th ahead of their first qualifying match for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar against Turkmenistan on September 10th.  Since taking over the national team just over a year ago, the complexion of the side under Paulo Bento has changed considerably.  Ki Sung-yueng and Koo Ja-cheol announced their international retirements following the Asian Cup earlier this year, but one of the newest faces primed to make his senior debut is Lee Kang-in, who was instrumental in leading Korea's U-20 side to an appearance in the final match at the World Cup in Poland.  The Golden Ball winner is hungry for success at the top level of international football, but will also have to work hard to establish himself at club level to make it possible.  KLU's Branko Belan has a closer look.

(Image courtesy of Diario AS.)

High Expectations, High Aspirations

A lot has been made of the potential of Lee Kang-in for several years now, even though at eighteen years old, his career has yet to fully take flight.  There are no questions with regards to his technical ability, as proven by his performance for Korea at the U-20 World Cup in Poland this year.  The fact that he is also capable of playing in multiple areas on the pitch also makes him a versatile asset for coaches and teams who have been keeping an eye on him in recent years.  As a player who is adept as an attacking midfielder and also as a winger on either flank, he can be a very useful tactical piece in any team's offensive setup.

His call-up to the senior team by Paulo Bento this September for a second time is a testament to how far he has come in his development.  In leading Korea to the final against Ukraine in Poland, he amassed two goals and four assists in seven matches, with his standout performance coming in the quarter-finals against Senegal where he scored a crucial penalty and added two assists in a match that finished 3-3 after extra time and 6-5 on penalties.

He also scored Korea's lone goal in the final and was a natural choice for player of the tournament considering very few people gave the Asian nation even an outside chance of progressing from Group F, a section which included the likes of tournament favorites Portugal and Argentina, as well as South Africa.  His sublime cross from the left for Oh Se-hun's header just minutes before the end of the first half in the all-important final group clash with Argentina gave the Koreans the momentum which would eventually carry them to a place in the knockouts, and eventually on a run which saw them to the brink of becoming world champions.

Immense Praise for an Exceptional Young Talent

While he has only made one appearance thus far this season coming off the bench as a substitute against RCD Mallorca in a 2-0 victory just last week, Lee's rise through the ranks at Valencia deserves pause, as his work rate and achievements continue to catch the eye of many at the club.  

Miguel Grau was Kang-in's former coach of Valencia's B side at the Mestalla and particularly was impressed with Lee's progress in the past few years.  

"Kangin is the same as many years ago, what happens is that he skips the stages and continues to do the same.  This is the really complicated thing.  [He is] a boy with a lot of ambition, and is very talented.  The two things come together.  It is very difficult to work with such concentration and be so talented.  Putting the two things together is very difficult to find and Kangin is like that.  Those of us who know him have no doubt about him," he said in an interview in August of last year.

The player himself is reveling in his time with the club, and the fact that he is not at a bigger club the likes of F.C. Barcelona or Real Madrid has also seemed to benefit his career development to this point.

"I am very happy to stay with this great club.  Now I have to focus on working hard every day in order to achieve the best results.  I have been here for seven years and my dream as always [has] been to play at the Mestalla with the first team.  I have been treated really well by the coaches and team-mates here and Valencia is a team that is great for young players.  It’s a dream for all of us to be here.  I want to play in La Liga and I need to keep working hard to do so.  This is a club that looks out for its young players," Lee said in June of last year.

The Fifth Korean in La Liga

Lee Kang-in made his 2019-20 season debut in Valencia's last match against Mallorca. Photo courtesy of Diario AS.

Lee officially became a member of Valencia's senior team on January 30th, 2019, making him just the fifth Korean player in history to play in La Liga.  Lee Chun-soo was the first, playing for Real Sociedad in 2003.  He also spent a season on loan with Numancia and returned to the K League in 2005 with Ulsan Hyundai.  He made a total of twenty-eight appearances in Spanish football.

Lee Ho-jin and Kim Young-gyu also appeared in La Liga, the former for Racing Club de Santander in 2006 and the latter for UD Almeira from 2013-17 mostly as a member of the club's B side.

The best-known name to grace Spanish football is Park Chu-young, who appeared in 2012 for Celta de Vigo, on loan from Arsenal.  Things got off to a good start for him, as he became the first Korean player to score in La Liga on his home debut in 2012, but, after scoring two more goals, he injured his foot and his season was over.  

An Eye Toward the Future

Lee officially made his La Liga debut last season in a match against Real Valladolid in a 1-1 draw on January 12th, making him the 2nd youngest player to play in Spain's top flight in 18-19.  He has just one appearance for the club this season.

However, there is a lot of competition for minutes at the club this year, with wingers Ferran Torres and Gonçalo Guedes having started the last match against Mallorca.  Carlos Soler is another wing option on the right but is currently out with an ankle injury after starting the season opener against Real Sociedad.  The arrival of Thierry Correia on European transfer deadline day from Portuguese side Sporting CP will also provide another challenge for Lee to get minutes, although the current consensus is that the Korean does not figure in manager Marcelino's plans at the moment.

Lee Kang-in with the Golden Ball alongside Ukrainian 'keeper Andriy Lunin, who won the Golden Glove. Image courtesy of FIFA.com

One man who is counting on Lee in the near future, however, is Paulo Bento.  Lee was first called up to the senior team for friendlies in March against Bolivia and Colombia but did not see the field.  He could be Korea's greatest talent to emerge from the youth ranks in quite some time, following unfulfilled expectations with the likes of Lee Seung-woo and others.  The fact that there is a price tag of 80 million euros attached to him for any club attempting to lure him away from Valencia suggests that he will indeed fulfill the promise which many have foreseen for him since he first entered the Spanish club's academy back in 2011.

Whether or not he will feature in Korea's matches in September is another matter, but one thing is for sure - he has been turning heads for a number of years now, and once he finally gets to show the world what he can do at the senior level, all should be in for a very pleasant surprise.  Lee Kang-in is on the cusp of stardom.  It is just a matter of time for the rest of the football world to find out.

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