Not many 17 year-olds have a buyout clause of 80 million euros but then not many 17 year-olds started their career in a popular prime time television reality show. When it comes to Lee Kang-in Valencia’s hopes are as high as the amount it will take to buy him.
His hometown of Incheon, on South Korea’s west coast, may be gritty and tough but the way Lee plays is much easier on the eye. This attacking midfielder, fast and skilful enough to play on the wing, was promoted to the club’s first team squad in July and made his debut in pre-season. A first La Liga start is only a matter of time.
“Valencia CF has reached an agreement with Kang-in Lee on Saturday to extend his contract until June 30, 2022, with a termination clause of 80 million euros,” the club announced on its website on July 21st.
Lee has come a long way since ‘Shoot Dori’ a popular Korean television show that started in the previous decade and followed the adventures of a team of cute kids coached by various celebrities that were equally cute. Lee entered as a seven year-old in 2007 and was simply too good for everyone. Running rings round his team-mates in training and other kids’ teams in the mini-league they played in, he was quickly given nicknames such as ‘Little Park Ji-sung’ and “Football Prodigy’. Such monikers didn’t fully show just how much better he was. The skills then –the creativity, the first touch and the willingness to take people on and run all day –have all improved.
Soon he was joining the academy of his hometown club Incheon United and in 2011, he was off with his family to Spain to join Valencia’s youth set-up. He has progressed through the ranks and appearing for the first team would be a testament, not just to his skill but his attitude, determination and ambition.
Korean fans are getting excited in spite of themselves. They have been here before, quite recently. Paik Seung-ho went to Barcelona at a similar age in 2009 and was soon joined by Lee Seung-woo. Despite plenty of hype, they never got anywhere near, an admittedly stellar first-team squad, a relative failure that was not helped by the FIFA ban slapped on Barcelona which their signings helped bring about. Lee is now in Serie B with Hellas Verona while Paik is still in Spain, as part of Girona’s B team.
Lee may appreciate not being at Barcelona and not being called ‘The Korean Messi’. It helps keep both of his talented feet on the ground.
“I am very happy to stay with this great club,” Lee said in June. “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 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.”
So much so that there were reports in Spain in March that Valencia and the Spanish FA were hoping to register Lee as a Spanish player, as he had resided in the country for long enough to qualify. Being naturalised would not only make him more valuable to the club but would also mean he would be able to avoid military service.
All able-bodied Korean males have to report for 21 months of national duty by the time they are 28. Winning Olympic medals or Asian Games golds means exemption (which is why Tottenham Hotspur are allowing Son Heung-min to miss the early part of the season to head to Indonesia and the 2018 Asian Games later this month)
The rumours did not go down well in Seoul where the issue of military service, and those that try to avoid it, is a sensitive one even before you talk about the potential loss of talent. The reports were quickly denied by Lee’s father and, as things stand, Lee junior is still very much a Korean. Indeed, he has represented his country at youth level and once he starts playing for Valencia, a senior call-up is sure to follow shortly.
Lee Kang-in may not be up for grabs when it comes to national teams but if any club wants to attract his talents, it is going to cost 80 million euros. It may well prove to be a bargain.