masia | 2016-01-06
Barcelona's incredible South Korean youngsters are back in action, what you need to know
On March 2013. FIFA controversially banned Barcelona’s South Korean trio of Lee Seung-Woo, Paik Seung-Ho and Jang Gyolhee from playing official club games until they turn 18 years old. As time passed, FIFA went to restrict their footballing career even further, forbidding the three Koreans, and the rest of the kids who have had been banned, to be at the La Masia facilities, be it for training, living or just being with their teammates and colleagues.
While Jang will have to wait until next summer to be registered (he turns 18 in April) Lee and Paik will be 18 this month, finally being able to play for Barcelona again after almost three years in waiting.
But what can we expect from Lee and Paik? Obviously, they are both great talents. The club doesn’t rarely pick kids from the other side of the planet, let alone holds onto them after they're embargoed from registering players. Let’s get into more detail.
In South Korea, Lee is already a superstar, stalked by the South Korean press, attending celebrity charity games, and much more. The expectations in his native country are huge. The fact that he has been coping with this kind of coverage for years now at such a tender age is pretty impressive. Off the pitch, one can compare him with Neymar. Both seek to openly enjoy their lives, being calm and humble towards the press. To an extent, he also has some of Neymar’s traits on the pitch, but not in terms of playing style, though. He has a bit of a theatrical edge in his goal celebrations and bad habits of exaggerating in order to get refereeing decisions in his way. While Neymar matured and improved himself in that area since his Santos days, Lee is still young and will have plenty of time to learn. La Masia coaches can’t be soft on him, just because he’s a big talent, as it happened with Gerard Deulofeu, eventually causing him trouble when he started to get used to the norms of the first team with a strict coach. He also has to further improve his physique, something that can be worked on, too.
On the pitch, it is easy to spot Lee’s talent. His technical ability, speed on and off the ball, and his eye for goal are just some of the reasons why he is seen as the Golden Boy for a new talented generation of Asian players. Since joining La Masia in 2011, he has widely been labelled as the academy’s biggest talent, and there’s a reason for that. Despite bagging 36 goals in 26 games in his first season, Mundo Deportivo’s Oriol Domenech described him as “more than a midfielder” due to his abilities to seek for the ball around the midfield, distribute it, and create chances for his teammates. For the same reason, Barça TV’s Jaume Marcet has described him as a “striker with a midfielder’s soul”.
While the hype and expectations around Lee are massive, Paik (and Jang for that matter) were somewhat overlooked. Maybe that will become an advantage for the South Korean midfielder, when people will get to see him in action for real, besides a few appearances training with the first team.
In 2009, Barça’s Infantil B (U-14’s) competed in a friendly tournament in which Paik and South Korea’s U-14 national team also participated. Paik was South Korea’s captain and best player. He showed so much talent against Infantil B, that the then Infantil B coach Albert Puig immediately contacted the then La Masia coordinator Albert Benaiges afterwards, and told him to keep an eye on Paik. The day after, Real Madrid, who also participated in the tournament, contacted Paik. Puig and Benaiges acted quickly by approaching Paik and his family, who were convincing them to accept a trial at La Masia. Paik amazed at the trial, with great ability. He also used his left foot naturally, despite being right-footed. In 2010, Paik signed for Barça, where he was schooled as a midfielder, rather than an attacker, which he had been playing as in South Korea.
Paik’s Barça DNA was evident at the age early age of 12, and it is still clear to this day. He is hardworking on both sides on the midfield, usually playing an attacking role. He uses his body very well to change direction, and his pausa -similar to what Iniesta does, slowing down and controlling the match- comes naturally. He is also a threat from outside the box, and while one of his problems when younger was his physique, he has grown a lot since, but he is still relatively skinny.
First team coach Luis Enrique also seems to be fond of Paik. In December alone, he was called up to train with the team three times, with a handful of times in November and October as well. And it is understandable why Luis Enrique would like him, given his tireless work ethic and versatility on midfield.
All this being said, Barça fans can’t expect them to take the club by storm to begin with. By watching them in youth Barça and national team friendlies over the last years, it’s obvious that they are both rusty and that it will take some time for them to regain their form. To put things to perspective, look how Luis Suárez, the best striker in the world, struggled when he returned after being banned for four months, while still being able to train with his team and play friendlies.
The club knows this. That is why, per Josep Capdevilla of Sport, they will start off at Juvenil A (U19), even though they are both eligible to play for Barça B, who could use some help, so they won’t be rushed into a difficult environment to begin with.
The future is hard to predict, especially given what Lee and Paik have been through, but the fact that they stayed despite the football ban is a clear show of commitment and desire to play for Barcelona. They are likely to become the first South Koreans to feature in a Blaugrana shirt.
Want to watch them in action? Click here.
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