While the likes of Nam Tae-Hee, Suk Hyun-Jun, and Son Heung-Min drove Korean football fans frantic with impressive preseason performances for their respective European clubs, many have overlooked the presence of another youngster in France who has been in the works to design a blueprint for his own future.
Lee Yong-Jae, after joining the French Ligue 2 outfit FC Nantes last year, just began his second professional season and has been trying to help the eight-time Ligue 1 champions recapture some of their old glory. From 2007 to the dawn of last season, he was part of the youth set-up at England’s Watford FC – a deal made possible as he was the beneficiary of the foreign-exchange program arranged by the Korea Football Association.
After an impressive spell at Watford, the 19 year-old was offered a professional contract by Nantes. Prior to his move to Europe, he was the youngest player on the Korean side which hosted the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Although being away from home since the tender age of 16 languished the prospects of extending his international career at least for the moment, he was included in U-20 national team manager Lee Kwang-Jong’s provisional squad in March ahead of the Four Nations Cup in UAE.
Known for his blistering pace and exceptional skills, Lee quickly showed great signs of promise to the coaching staff of Nantes as well as the fans, including then-technical director Gernot Rohr. His stature and skill-sets have already been compared to his idol Park Ju-Young of AS Monaco, although a lot is still left to be desired when it comes to his physicality during matches. He has yet to get on the score-sheet for the senior squad, but when facing defenders in his age group, he proved that he can be a handful for the opponent by consistently scoring for the reserves as well as the U-19 side.
After spending the most of last season observing from the bench, Lee has emerged into the centerpiece of manager Baptiste Gentili’s rebuilding assignment and featured in all four of Nantes’ Ligue 2 matches this season. In addition, he is a candidate to represent his country at the U-20 level when Lee Kwang-Jong’s boys travel to China in October for the AFC U-19 Championship, where the Koreans will by vying for the semifinals at the very least, in order to punch their tickets to the U-20 World Cup in the following year.
FootKorean recently caught up with Lee in France for an exclusive interview.
FootKorean (FK): Let’s start with the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup, an event that was hosted by Korea. It was also your very first international competition. What was it like?
Lee Yong-Jae (LYJ): Well, I was only 16 at the time and was the youngest player on the team so I didn’t feel as much pressure as some of my older teammates did, because no one really expected me to do anything special. I took it as a learning process and tried to soak everything in as much as possible.
FK: Despite hosting the tournament, the Koreans were knocked out in the group stages. What was the problem?
LYJ: We were all very young, but people expected so much from us simply because we were playing in front of our people. I think my teammates were under too much pressure and got too nervous during the matches.
FK: The U-17 side at the time included the likes of Yoon Bitgaram, Oh Jae-Seok, and Yoon Suk-Young – all of whom have established themselves either on the senior national team or at the K-League. Do you still keep in touch with them?
LYJ: I did, but I’ve been playing abroad for three years now so it’s hard to keep in touch with them because of the time difference.
FK: Your former teammate Yoon Bitgaram is making a name for himself on the senior national team after scoring in his debut against Nigeria. How would you rate him as a player?
LYJ: It’s been tough for him over the years, because of the interview he had with the press during the 2007 U-17 World Cup. [Editor’s note: The press misquoted Yoon’s rational expression of disinterest in following the K-League and created fan frenzy during the U-17 World Cup. The criticism grew heavier as the Koreans were knocked out of the group stages.]
But even at the time, he was such a technically gifted player and always played extremely well so his recent form doesn’t surprise me at all. I never had any doubts about his abilities.
FK: Let’s talk about the experience you had at Watford FC during your youth career. What was it like to play in England and what specifically did you learn?
LYJ: Playing in England has been the most valuable experience for me. I didn’t know anything about the culture or football over there, and once I arrived, everything was different – from the club’s training facilities to the quality of players. Even players around my age were so much bigger than me in stature, but they still had excellent skills on the ball.
I think my fundamentals improved tremendously in England and I also got stronger as my body kept on growing. Even the young players in England were weight lifting which wasn’t usual for me.
FK: So what influenced you to join FC Nantes and how is life in France?
LYJ: At first, I didn’t have much option because I wasn’t eligible to obtain the work permit to sign a professional contract with Watford. So I was looking for a club to join in Europe and Watford recommended me to take a trial at Nantes. Thankfully, the club decided to keep me after the trial.
The people here are very nice and they’ve treated me really well. The fans have high expectations for my future as well, because I’m one of the youngest players here. Also, I started learning French last season and had a tutor who was Korean.
FK: Tell us a bit about starting in the first match of this season for Nantes.
LYJ: I had a lot of confidence and expected a lot from myself, but as soon as the match got under way, I got a bit too anxious and didn’t play so well. But this was only the first match, so I’m going to try my best to improve.
FK: How would you rate the quality of Nantes’ football in general?
LYJ: We became a much younger side than we were last season. We aren’t playing as well as we should, because the chemistry is lacking at the moment but the progress is definitely being made. Once young players including myself fully integrate into the team and get along with the veterans on and off the pitch, we’ll be much stronger. At the moment, the season has just begun and everything is new for us.
FK: There are quite a few managerial problems in Nantes. What in particular do you believe is the biggest challenge?
LYJ: I’m not exactly sure, but perhaps it’s the failure to win promotion last season from the second division. We were at the top of the league table midway through the season, but started struggling for some strange reason. I believe there were also some financial troubles because we failed to win promotion to Ligue 1, and now the pressure is even bigger for this season after last season’s failure. The confidence in locker room has also gone down as well.
FK: How confident are you about this season?
LYJ: It’s premature to make a prediction at this point, but I desperately want to play in Ligue 1 next season. It won’t be easy considering the way we’re playing at the moment, but it’s certainly not impossible if we build on our strengths and improve the team chemistry. We’re all going to give it our best shot to win promotion.
FK: What was it like to play a friendly match against North Korea last year?
LYJ: It was a great experience. Not often will a club side get a chance to play against a national team, but also the fact that it was against North Korea made the experience that much special for me as I’m from South Korea. At the same time, though, I tried my best to help Nantes win, not so much because I wanted to beat North Korea, but because it’s only natural for a competitor to help his team win. I never experienced anything like it before, so I was very nervous even though it was only a friendly match.
FK: Did you have a chance to speak with anyone from the North Korean side?
LYJ: Not really. I just greeted them in Korean before the match, so it was a bit disappointing.
FK: Let’s switch gears and talk about the World Cup in South Africa. Obviously, you weren’t with the team, but what did you think of South Korea’s performance?
LYJ: I thought our players did an excellent job in making it to the round of 16, but at the same time, it left a bit to be desired as well. The way it ended against Uruguay in particular was very disappointing, because I truly thought we were going to win after the equalizer.
FK: Who would you designate as your role model from the Korean side?
LYJ: As a striker, I would have to go with Park Ju-Young. He not only has superb techniques, but also has the ability to score goals. I would also love to be the type of player who would do anything for my team to win, a lot like Park Ji-Sung who is everyone’s favorite. To be honest, I’m always under a lot of pressure as I’m a striker and I feel that it’s my obligation to score every time.
FK: You briefly attended and had a short stint in your youth career at Pocheol High School, a school famous for developing Lee Dong-Guk. How would you rate your senior colleague?
LYJ: He came to visit a few times to practice with us. He even took us to dinner and treated us very nicely. I grew up watching him and always wanted to be like him. He didn’t have a good World Cup, but he’s a strong person so I expect him to bounce back and do what he has been doing in the K-League. I know his club is still doing well and he’s been in excellent scoring form, so it won’t be long until we see him at his best again. One thing I always wanted to learn from him was his ability to recover quickly after a disappointing string of matches.
Interviewed by Kim Soohee and Edouard Dupas
Written and translated by Steve H.