The attacking wonderkids are coming out of every corner of Asia. With their quick feet, great work rates and discipline, you can’t really go wrong when you, as a scout, are hunting for new talent.

Lee Seung Woo is a prime example. With his speed, technical ability, eye for goal, light touch in and around the box, and positive nature on and off the pitch, he is arguably the biggest prospect in Barcelona’s cantera. BarçaTV journalist Jaume Marcet describes him as “a striker with a midfielder’s soul."

In October 2010, when Lee was 12, a Barça scout spotted him in South Korea, during the 9-a-side mini World Cup. What stood out was his speed, dribbling and the ability to bag goal after goal.

The Barcelona scout had to set Lee up for a move to La Masia quickly, because Real Madrid and a couple of Bundesliga clubs were also interested. Fortunately, Lee chose the Catalans.

Back in Korea, Lee was a massive star in under-13 and 15 football. He managed to score 29 goals in 16 matches in the West Seoul Division, 11 goals in 6 matches during the knockout stages and was subsequently awarded the Cha Boom’s Youth Player MVP of the Year. With the U-15 side, he scored 38 goals and made 18 assists in just 29 games.

Similarities with Messi

Putting this into perspective, Lionel Messi scored 37 goals in 30 appearances at a similar age. No wonder people have given Lee the nickname: “The Korean Messi."

In truth, Lee's playing style isn’t that similar to Messi’s, but his ability to score goals is at a similar age, the same as Messi’s. Lee is a huge fan of Messi and when asked an opinion of the Barça superstar, he said:

“I watch Messi very closely. I want to be a perfect player just like him. My goal is to try my absolute best to become the first Korean to play for Barcelona’s senior team.”

Like Messi, Lee starts from the striker position and always drops back to receive the ball from his teammates, linking up with them and driving the ball forward with his exceptional dribbling and close control. In that sense, Lee and Messi are definitely similar. The same goes for their goalscoring records.

FIFA Suspension

In March 2013, Lee and a few other internationals were banned by FIFA from participating in official competitions for the club after complaints from an “unnamed club” (some rumors say that it was Real Madrid), in violation of Article 19 of the FIFA bylaws that relate to international footballers under the age of 18.

“The rules for the signing of minors are very clear. The popularity of football also brings some dangers. The financial success of our sport makes it, unfortunately, of interest to international mafias, who get rich due to illicit activities like match-fixing or tricking underprivileged kids with false promises of a professional career in Europe," FIFA President Sepp Blatter said.

In their defense, FC Barcelona officials pointed out that it was the Korean FA that offered Lee and two other footballers, Seung-Ho Paik and Gyeol-Hee Jang, to the club. These players will continue to train with the club and take part in friendlies until the end of the ban, in January 2016.

To add more controversy, Catalan paper Sport is reporting that cases like these are rare, as FIFA hardly interferes in such affairs, unless a complaint or allegation from another body or club is received. When a player like Lee performs as he has done ever since coming to La Masia, it’s not hard to see why other clubs would want to potentially eliminate the South Korean’s opportunity to grow and integrate into the Barcelona system, thus reducing the chances for him to succeed. This is, however, speculation and should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

The star of his generation

Ever since he joined La Masia, Lee has been a big success. In his first tournament with Barça in the summer of 2011, Lee scored 13 goals in 10 games and was chosen as the MVP of the Torneo de Canillas.

In May 2012, Mundo Deportivo wrote a small article on him, stating that: “(A) 14-year-old is the star of Infantil A,” saying Lee is more than a goalscorer, despite 36 goals in 26 games, including five hat-tricks, and that he is known for excellent speed, intelligence of movement (with and without the ball) and stands out as a prototypical La Masia team mate.

Later that month his team played with the U-15 side, Infantil A, in the Lennart Johansson Trophy and won the competition, scoring 17 goals and conceding 0. Lee was top scorer. He impressed to say the least, scoring a brace in the semi-final against Dutch side Vitesse and then a goal in the final against Red Star Belgrade, which Barça won 2-0.

With the FIFA ban in place, Lee has been playing in many friendlies to keep in form. In October 2013, he scored a goal and an assist in the Copa Internacional del Caribe final.

Last year was a bit of a roller coaster for Lee. At the end of the 2013/14 season, the young South Korean was with the league-winning Juvenil B side, despite being eligible for Cadet A. Despite this achievement, he still wasn’t allowed to play any official matches at the club because of the ban imposed by FIFA.

During the summer, the ban was temporarily lifted while CAS was deliberating over the Barça appeal.

Lee was promoted to Juvenil A and played a couple of friendly tournaments with the team. These tournaments weren’t a success for the team and Lee had a tough time. He didn’t score any goals and his effect on the games were minimal. Meanwhile, CAS decided to extend the deadline for the final decision regarding Barcelona’s transfer ban, and the youngsters were once again suspended from playing any official matches for the Catalan club.

Star of the Asian Championship

Shortly after the pre-season came to an end, Lee went back to South Korea to prepare for the U-16 Asian Championship with the South Korean national team. Together with his Barcelona team mate Jang, also suspended by FIFA, they went on to become key players in South Korea’s run to the final.

Despite being suspended from the first game because of too many yellow cards during qualifiers, Lee went on to score two goals, both match-deciders, in the two group games he played. Both goals were created by Lee after some terrific individual brilliance.

On came the knockout stages. In the quarter-final against Japan, Lee scored both of the goals in South Korea’s 2–0 win. His second goal of the match was a rather easy one-touch goal but the first one was as good as a solo goal gets, and was one of the goals of the tournament.

Lee received the ball in his own half, sprinted past the midfielders, and dribbled past three out of four Japanese defenders before taking the ball past the helpless goalkeeper and putting it into the back of the net. One could say it was Maradona-Messi-esque.

The semi-final against Syria was a 7–1 thrashing and once again, Lee was the main man. He scored a penalty and made four (!) assists. In the final against North Korea, Lee was physically beaten by the hard-hitting defenders who did nott give the spaces Lee would have hoped for. In the end North Korea won 1–0, but despite a rather disappointing final, Lee was awarded MVP of the tournament. He was also the top goalscorer.

Since Lee already plays at a higher age level, at a much higher team level, these performances shouldn’t really come as the biggest surprise, but even so, Lee showed why he is one of the best talents in the world under the age of 18.

Economic Value

Economically, Lee can also become very important in the future. The Asian market is huge and if his development continues as it has, Barça will be able to use his marketing potential in Asia, especially South Korea, and earn enormous sums of money in a market that is only becoming more and more profitable. We saw this with Park Ji-sung when he was a key player for Manchester United.

Lee Seung Woo is definitely a player that we should keep an eye on for the future, but it is a very real fear that the ban, which has kept him away from official matches for two years now, might have had an effect on Lee’s development. However the talent is definitely there and hopefully, he will still develop into an important first-team player. He has the potential for it.

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