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Interview: Ansan Greeners Captain Lee In-jae

Despite a more difficult season than the previous, the performances of Ansan Greeners' captain and defender Lee In-jae have stood out for the Green Wolves with the player also reaching the 100 K League game milestone earlier this season. Ansan Foreign Supporters Group's Mike Brandon had a chance to find out from the Ansan captain himself what he thought about the evolution of the side, working with foreign players and his own path into the game.

Like many Korean players, Lee In-jae’s path to professional football came late, at least relative to Europe. He was playing at Dankook University before moving to the National League, Korea’s then 3rd tier, at the age of 22, signing for his first professional club Ulsan Hyundai Mipo Dolphin. Despite this, Lee said he has loved the sport since he was young, and never thought of doing any other job. Growing up in Bucheon, he followed the local side and acted as a ball-boy on match days. He put it down to persistence, not only with hard work as an individual but also in not getting frustrated. For players in their early 20s yet to get a professional contract he has some advice: “Don’t give up looking and prepare… you will definitely have a good opportunity.” 

K League Centurion

When Lee turned out for Ansan on October 25th against Seoul E-Land, it marked the defender's 100th K League match, but his rise to Ansan captaincy began on the other side of the peninsula. Lee was part of the Ulsan Dolphins side that would become Ansan Greeners in 2017. 

In terms of the transition, Lee did not see much of a difference in terms of the move from east coast to the west coast. There was a hint of something lost to time as he noted that that Ulsan team was lost to history, but from the player’s perspective, there was a continuum into the new side, as many players and staff were part of the transition. 

Lee In-jae tussles with Seoul E-land's Leandro Robiero

Playing in front of larger crowds in the stadium was described as difficult at first, as the small number of fans in the National League meant that playing came with little pressure, whereas the K League has much more of a spotlight on the players both in the stadium and through the media. However, it was not long before the pressure turned to excitement when walking out at the stadium on a match day. 

There is also a level of gratitude as the step up to full professional football in the K League with the new Ansan side was a major milestone in Lee’s career, not to mention becoming captain for the 2020 season after an outstanding 2019 campaign. He was honest when asked about the dream of playing further afield such as in Europe, noting that “all soccer players have the idea of going to a bigger market and playing soccer at least once. I also played soccer with such a dream, and even now, my thoughts remain unchanged.

2019 AFSC Player of the Season

Lee’s standout performances in the 2019 campaign, that saw Ansan make a surprise run on the play-off positions, earned him the foreign supporter’s player of the season. Lee expressed his gratitude for the attention but noted that good performances and victories are necessary to reward supporters’ faith in the side. 

Lee In-jae in discussion with Kim Dae-yeol, July 2020 

The club captain was pragmatic in his reasoning on the difficulties the Green Wolves find themselves in this season, being bottom of the table at the time of the interview. He noted the number of players departing from the 2019 squad, including the highly influential Vintecinco, Masatoshi and Jang Hyeok-jin. Lee expressed his confidence based on the new management team and good winter pre-season, however, the central midfield did not live up to expectations, and the team has struggled as a result.

Working with Overseas Players

With the imported players having such an impact, integrating them into the team is essential and as captain, Lee In-jae has additional responsibilities. Lee noted that in the preparation process for games, a translator is present for communication between the manager, domestic players and the foreign players. As a captain, he has to go one step-further and Lee explained how he learns simple words and greetings to help communicate with the foreign players, to help them adapt more easily and overcome the obvious sense of loneliness they may feel. In terms of during a game, players are drilled in short words and body language for communication to overcome any language issues that may arise on the pitch.

On the topic of foreign players, Ansan have had several influential imports since their inception including record goal-scorer Raul Tarragona and the goal getting Masatoshi Ishida. It is Gustavo Vintecinco however, who has had the most influence according to Lee. He pinpointed the Brazilian’s bright energy and excitement in and around the dressing room, as well as his rapport with fans. This positive and bright energy certainly seems to be lacking around the Wa Stadium this season from the supporters perspective. The reflection hints at the opportunity and burdens that being captain at a professional football team brings, with the need to balance performance, communication and also be part of building the club brand.

The interview ended with a little statistic: As a defender, Lee had scored in each season of his professional career but not yet in 2020. “When would this season’s goal come?” we asked. The response was coy; he would rather end the game with a clean sheet or at the other end, an assist. A true captain’s answer!

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