Lee Seung-Woo: The latest 'young Messi' that might just meet the comparison
The 60-second story
Date of birth: January 6, 1998
Place of birth: Suwon, South Korea
Current club: Barcelona
Back in 2010, Barcelona scout Albert Puig watched a slight and diminutive 12-year-old with the quickest of feet stand out in the Danone Cup.
A year later, Lee Seung-woo was heading to Catalonia.
The 13-year-old more than fitted in, scoring 39 goals in 29 games for the under-13s, breaking a record set by Lionel Messi.
Lee continued to shine at La Masia, Barca’s training facility, though his development slowed in 2014 as Barcelona were found by FIFA to have flouted regulations that governed the transfers of minors. In the two years that followed, he was unable to play an official match for Barcelona, reduced to appearing only in exhibitions and friendlies.
By that time, however, he was representing South Korea and was the under-16 team's big name going into the Asian Championships in September 2014.
Lee Seung-woo is one of the best young players in Asia. He is at a great club and if he continues learning and improving, then he can go very far.
His relationship with his homeland has not always been smooth. Lee had received most of his football education in Spain and does not play or act like the average Korean footballer – kicking advertising hoardings when missing a chance or publicly grumbling about being subbed off raise eyebrows at home.
This teenager can seem brash to Korean sensibilities – one newspaper noted he could be a 'jerk'. Jerk or not, he took the tournament by storm.
In the quarter-final with Japan he scored both goals in a 2-0 win, including one that would have made Messi proud. Lee picked up the ball inside his own half, beat five Japanese defenders before finishing with confidence.
In a 7-1 semi-final win over Syria, he scored one goal and made another four. North Korea took out the final, but Lee walked away with the plaudits.
On his 18th birthday in January, the competitive game ban was lifted and Lee was drafted into Barcelona 'B' – a step closer to the really big time.
Why you need to know about him
It is not because he is a real flair player who has fans on the edge of their seat whenever he receives the ball. It's because he plays for Barcelona. The best team in the world over the last decade.
Whether sporting blond, pink or black locks, the 18-year-old catches the eye and loves to run at people and take them on.
The ‘(insert country's name) Messi' is a fairly obvious and common moniker but it means more when that player is at Barcelona and actually seems to be following in the original's (albeit early) footsteps.
Over the past decade, an increasing number of Asian players have headed to Europe: Park Ji-sung at Manchester United, Keisuke Honda at AC Milan and Shinji Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund as established stars.
Son Heung-min went to Hamburg as a 16-year-old and succeeded, but this is Barcelona. If an Asian player can go to perhaps the biggest club in the world as a 13-year-old, navigate the youth ranks and become a star, then it really will be something to celebrate.
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Perhaps thanks to his La Masia upbringing, Lee plays with more freedom, flair and confidence than his national teammates. Whether sporting blond, pink or black locks, the 18-year-old catches the eye and loves to run at people and take them on. He also takes losing and playing poorly very badly indeed.
His speed is striking and when in full flight is a sight to behold, changing direction and speed with the minimum of effort with the ball chained to his foot. Lee aims to make the unexpected happen and will keep trying, even if at first he does not succeed.
There are concerns that he is over-confident, not as much as a team player as he should be – especially an issue in South Korea with its strong collective ethic – and needs to add more to his game than speed and dribbling.
Expectations seem to sit lightly on his shoulders, but he was marked out of the final of the 2014 AFC Under-16 championships by a physical North Korean team.
It remains to be seen how he deals with the close attention that will continue to come his way as his reputation grows. The results at the Under-17 World Cup in 2015 were mixed in this regard.
There have also been concerns expressed that perhaps, just perhaps, he is not quite as supremely talented as the hype would have you believe. The Messi comparisons in Europe don't help anyone and neither do calls for a senior call-up to the national team before he has made his professional debut.
Playing for Barcelona's B team could just be the education he needs.
“Lee Seung-woo is one of the best young players in Asia,” Park Ji-sung told FourFourTwo. “He has worked hard and is exciting to watch. He is at a great club and if he continues learning and improving, then he can go very far.”
“He is a player that is close to genius,” said Jung Jung-yong, coach of Korea’s under-15 team. “He already has most of what a top attacker needs. He is the kind of attacker that Korea finds it hard to produce.”
“If you don’t foul him, then you can’t stop him.” Japan youth international Tomiyasu Takehiro.
Did you know?
Lee was the player at the centre of Barcelona's transfer ban. FIFA issued the suspension after the club had illegally signed under-18 starlets, with Lee the one that tipped the balance. At the time of the ban, Lee's parents were preparing to move from Korea to Spain to meet one of FIFA's requirements. It was too little, too late.
During the ban, Real Madrid were ready to make a move and pay big money to take one of Barca's brightest prospects. Lee decided to keep following Messi's footsteps and not those of Luis Figo, staying put.
Lee is in a unique position. Unlike any other Asian player, the route to the top is right there. It is not about going to a smaller league in Europe or a smaller club in a big league and then earning a big move. Lee is already where he wants to be – well, not yet, there is still a lot of work to do.
It's simple yet fiendishly difficult – establish himself as a regular player in Barcelona's B team, an experience that really will serve him well for the years to come, then become a member of the first-team squad.