Bolton Wanderers' South Korea star Chung-Yong Lee all set for second World Cup
CHUNG-YONG Lee feared he may never play at another World Cup when he suffered his horrific double leg break three years ago.
After exploding onto the Premier League scene at Wanderers, the Korean winger had already impressed on the biggest stage of them all – scoring twice in the finals in South Africa.
But it was in the unglamorous surroundings of Newport that the dynamic midfielder saw his trajectory come to an abrupt halt, as a cumbersome challenge from ex-Glasgow Rangers midfielder Tom Miller, now of Lincoln City, left him requiring major surgery and facing nine months out of competitive action.
Wanderers fans were furious they had been robbed of one of their biggest talents in such a meaningless friendly, and many would argue the 25-year-old’s star has never quite shone as brightly since.
But he battled back to command a regular place for Bolton and now stands on the verge of his second World Cup, this time as South Korea’s vice-captain.
Many feel this summer could be a pivotal point for the former FC Seoul man, who remains one of Wanderers’ biggest and most admired assets despite some indifferent form in the last couple of seasons.
By Chung-Yong’s own admission, adapting to the physical nature of football outside the Premier League has been difficult. And many of his fans back home feel his talents are going to waste in what they feel is a footballing backwater.
The player himself is much more humble than that, however, and as he looks forward to kicking-off his competition against Russia on Tuesday, June 17, Chung-Yong admits simply playing regular football again is a blessing in itself.
“I have learned to deeply appreciate every single chance I have now,” he said. “When I could not play for a year that period was one of the most frustrating times of my career, one I don’t want to experience again.
“So now I just love preparing for games, being able to play for the team, being part of the matchday squad.”
Burnout was an issue that seemed to follow Chung-Yong in his second season at Wanderers, following the last World Cup, and also one that concerned Dougie Freedman on his arrival.
The Whites boss has tried hard to protect one of the most naturally talented players in his squad but would perhaps admit he has not seen him at the peak of his powers.
Chung-Yong concedes fatigue has been an issue in the last 12 months.
“It has been tiring at times. It sometimes shows during the second half of some matches, I really do get tired. But that is something any player has to get over,” he said in an interview with the Korean media.
“But tiredness is the least of my worries. I am just thankful for the opportunity to play, just to be out on the pitch, doing what I love. I’ll get some rest. I will definitely be ready for the World Cup.”
Korea failed to win a single game in their first 14 attempts at the World Cup between 1954 in Switzerland and the start of the 2002 tournament they co-hosted with Japan. But their miraculous run to the semi-finals under Guus Hiddink served to revive the country’s footballing fortunes.
Chung-Yong has spearheaded the next generation, now boasting 54 international caps, but recognises there is a weight of expectation on the Taeguk Warriors, no longer considered outsiders, as they fight Russia, Belgium and Algeria for a place in the last 16.
“I think the least we can aim for is to get to the knockout stages and go on from there each game,” he said. “But there is no question that it won’t be an easy task.
“We will need to be focused every game we face. The passion of the Korean people who will be supporting us in the streets all over Korea will be the strongest force to pull us through.
“I know there is a lot of expectation, and the team will be playing for them, the Korean people. I feel responsible to put in 100 per cent for the people who will be supporting us all the way.”