VANCOUVER, BC - Having finally hung up his cleats last October, there are a lot of things that Young-Pyo Lee can look back on in his 14-year career and be proud of.
He played on three different continents, in five different leagues, and in three World Cups – a feat reserved for only the best soccer players on the planet.
However, one memory sticks out among a legendary career for the former Whitecaps FC star: his first experience on the soccer world’s biggest stage, the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Lee’s South Korean side was not only the host nation, but they made a magical run to the semifinals which, to this day, is the only instance where an Asian nation has gotten that far in the tournament.
The memory is a favourite for Lee, even if it didn’t start out as he had planned.
“I was injured the first two games. I watched [the first match against] Poland from the trainer’s room while he fixed me,” Lee told whitecapsfc.com of a calf injury he suffered in training a few days prior to the tournament.
Fortunately, the South Koreans took care of business in his absence, winning 2-0 against Poland and tying the United States 1-1. And, then, in his squad’s third match against Portugal, the 5-foot-9 right back finally took to the pitch. Even if it was 12 years ago, the image of those first moments against Portugal and stepping out in front of the South Korean faithful are etched into Lee’s mind.
“It was awesome,” Lee said. “Everyone cheering, it was special.”
However, Lee also highlighted the fact that being the host nation is a dual-edged sword.
“Usually, the World Cup is already tense and stressful, but in our home, all the people are supporting us and behind us,” Lee stated. “The media, especially, is interested in us. Any single action you make is super important.”
Under the intense media scrutiny and pressure that came with being the host nation, head coach Guus Hiddink instituted a no contact policy with the media, except for “one or two conferences with all of the media before the World Cup, only 10 minutes," according to Lee.
Lee admits that, in retrospect, the media blackout was the best thing possible for a young squad with the hopes of an entire country on their shoulders.
“Sometimes, we don’t need to read the media, or watch the TV or newspaper, because they are talking all about us,” the South Korean star admitted. “Sometimes it’s good, but most of the time it’s not good for the young players, even me, at that moment. So, when I remember that time, I just focused on the game and didn't think too much about the media.”
And it paid off. Over their next three matches, the South Koreans took down Portugal 2-0, beat the Italians 2-1, and after a 0-0 draw through regulation and extra time, they overcame Spain in penalty kicks. In one monumental stretch, the underdog host nation had dispatched three of the soccer world’s international giants, who had a combined five World Cup titles between them.
Though they fell to the Germans, with a Michael Ballack goal and the impenetrable goalkeeper Oliver Kahn being the difference, Lee still remembers that 2002 squad, and that crazy run, with the utmost fondness.
“The 2002 World Cup was my first World Cup, but when I look back on that moment, sometimes we are very lucky,” Lee said. “At that moment, our squad was very, very strong - every single position. Even more, we had Guus Hiddink – he inspired us to play very well, every single game.”
Lee would go on to play in two more World Cups, the 2006 tournament in Germany and the 2010 edition in South Africa, but the South Koreans never fared as well as they did in that 2002 tournament where they were on their home turf.
"What is a soccer commentator?" Y.P. Lee finds out
Now retired as a player, Lee is heading back to the World Cup in a different capacity: as a colour analyst for Korean Broadcasting System (KBS).
The veteran had some words of wisdom for the Brazilians, who, as the host nation, are in the same spot in which South Korea found themselves in 2002 (although admittedly, coming into the World Cup as a favourite, the pressure is much greater for Brazil).
“The home game is a tough thing. They’ve got all of this pressure, because so many people expect so much of the home team. If they do well, everyone is happy. But, if they don’t play well, at home, everyone is [very angry] at the players!’ We can choose only one – the left side is a good thing, the right side is a bad thing, but I think that we need to remind ourselves and believe only in the good thing. Only think of the positive thing and try to do the best that we can. I think that Brazil can do many things.”
Despite that goodwill for the Brazilians, Lee predicted that they'd fall at the last hurdle.
“Argentina against Brazil in the final, and Argentina winning it,” Lee said, laughing. “It’s a horrible, horrible thing, Argentina winning the World Cup in Brazil.”
Lee also has some pointers for Whitecaps FC right back Steven Beitashour, a member of Iran's World Cup team. Unfortunately for Iran, they find themselves in the same group as Lee’s predicted champions, Argentina – just as South Korea was during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
On playing the high-powered Argentinians, led by arguably the greatest player of his generation in Lionel Messi, Lee had some unexpected advice.
“In 2010, when we played Argentina, all our players focused on Messi too much," he said. "Argentina has not only Messi. So, we blocked him well, but other players got all kinds of chances, so we lost 4-1. So I want to recommend that Messi is one of the best players – we know that, we need to concentrate to play Messi, but also we needed to think about the other players. We concentrated too much on Messi. We needed to concentrate on all the players when we played Argentina.”
However, more important than any single match, Lee’s most important tip for Beitashour about the World Cup is to relish it and make it memorable.
“The World Cup is one of the best times for any single player,” Lee said. “The most important thing is: enjoy the World Cup. Not everyone gets to play on a big stage like this. The 2014 World Cup will never come back, so the most important thing is to enjoy it. The second thing is, create history. The World Cup is not only a football game, it is the history. If he can make history, it lasts forever. This is his great chance to make football history for his club, his country.”
It’s not too late to participate in the best sporting experience in Vancouver. Whitecaps FC offer a flexible range of ticket products, including prorated season tickets ($220), 5-packs ($149), student season tickets, and a youth soccer half-season ticket. Single-match tickets start at $22, subject to applicable fees. For more information on all Whitecaps FC ticket options, call 604.669.9283 ext. 2 or visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets.