Lee Kang-in - the Korean football sensation making a big impression on and off the pitch

There aren’t many teenagers in the world with an €80 million price tag, but La Liga club Valencia want to ward admirers off their prized Korean asset.

What do football players Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Paul Pogba, and Lee Kang-in all have in common?

They have all won the Golden Ball award for the best player at the Under-20 World Cup.

While the first three players have gone on to become household names - and the transition to success at senior level is by no means a guarantee - it seems that Korean teenager Lee is set to follow suit.

To underline his growing reputation, the 19-year-old - who boasts over 206 thousand followers on Instagram - was recently voted onto the Forbes 30-under-30 list in Asia.

Kang-in Lee won the Golden Ball award as Korea finished runners-up at the U20 World Cup.
Kang-in Lee won the Golden Ball award as Korea finished runners-up at the U20 World Cup.Kang-in Lee won the Golden Ball award as Korea finished runners-up at the U20 World Cup.

Early celebrity

The comparisons don’t stop there either.

At the age of six, Lee appeared on Korean television show Shoot Dori, where young footballers show off their skills. The prodigy’s abilities were well in advance of his peers, and he joined local side Incheon United soon after.

It wasn’t long before Lee’s talent gained interest abroad, and he was scouted to join Valencia’s academy in Spain as a 10-year-old, in the same way that Argentinian Messi was recruited by their La Liga rivals Barcelona aged 13.

The opportunity to work under the same coaches that nurtured Spanish talent like Isco and David Silva was too good to pass up, and Lee’s father, a taekwondo teacher, decided that the family would move to Europe together.

In 2017, the attacking midfielder was called up to the club’s reserve team Valencia Mestalla, before becoming the first Asian player to play for their senior team in 2018.

Real Madrid interest

His appearances in the team since then have mostly been restricted to Copa del Rey cup outings, where his trickery on the ball has drawn comparisons with Silva.

But in September 2019, Lee made his UEFA Champions League debut as a late substitute in a 1–0 win over English side Chelsea. He became the youngest-ever Korean to play in club football’s premier competition at the age of 18 years and 6 months, beating Jeong Woo-yeong’s record.

It was a successful 2019 for Lee, who earlier starred for U20 World Cup runners-up Korea.

No talent like this in La Liga can escape the admiration of Real Madrid, and so it was that the Spanish giants expressed an interest in signing the Korean. However, they will have to dig deep in their pockets to prize Lee away from Valencia, with Los Che slapping a whopping great €80m (USD 87m) buyout clause on their young talent.

Lee was the first Asian player ever to play for Valencia's first team.
Lee was the first Asian player ever to play for Valencia's first team.Lee was the first Asian player ever to play for Valencia's first team.

International career and conscription

Lee received his international senior call up in March 2019, for friendlies against Bolivia and Colombia.

Injury forbidding, he is set to continue his international progression. But one potential road bump down the line could be his nation's compulsory military service, which Spanish sports newspaper Marca claim he has until 2029 to fulfil.

The only reason an elite footballer may be exempt from their service, is if they have been part of a Korean national team that wins the Olympic Games or Asian Games, or makes the last 16 of a World Cup.

Lee will be hoping to follow a similar path as Korea's current star player Son Heung-min in this regard, after the Tottenham Hotspur man excused himself from the full conscription through helping Korea to the 2018 Asian Games gold medal.

In fact, Lee had the opportunity to play in that side, but chose instead to train for his place in the Valencia team, while also wishing to avoid burnout.

The next opportunity for 19-year-old Lee to make his mark on a global level is at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021.

For now, La Liga remains suspended until the coronavirus outbreak is further contained. With the extra time off, perhaps Lee will be keeping an eye on the sport in his homeland, with Korea's professional K League season starting on May 8.

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