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Seung-Woo Lee: Huge South Korean expectations for Barcelona superkid

Written by Tom BevisEdited by Andrew Slevison

When Korea's new wonder kid, Seung-Woo Lee fired in a brilliant solo effort at the 2014 Asian U16 tournament in Thailand, the footage went viral.

Banned from playing competitively in club football until his 18th birthday due to being caught up in Barcelona's illicit transfer dealings, it thrust him back onto the radar of football fans and the media around the globe.

Signed by Barcelona's legendary youth academy, La Masia, and swept off to Spain at the tender age of 14, Lee is clearly a precocious talent and appears to have all the credentials to make a big impact both on and off the field in years to come.

Blessed with great balance, close control and the ability to run with the ball at pace, it is easy to see why he has been dubbed the 'Korean Messi'. Although such lofty comparisons are surely premature, it is a measure of the respect he commands amongst his peers at the world's most renowned youth academy.

So, with Lee being based thousands of miles away from his birthplace, it is perhaps interesting to examine his profile back in South Korea and also the future commercial potential of the boy wonder.

Although relatively unknown to the general public outside of Korea, in his homeland and within football circles, Lee is already considered somewhat of a phenomenon.

From the age of 12 he caught the attention of top scouts in Korea and much further afield. At the 2010 Danone Nations Cup, (the world's most prestigious soccer tournament for children), Lee was the outstanding player. He was top scorer in the tournament with 12 goals and it was his performances there that helped facilitate his move to Barcelona.

Current Korean U17 assistant manager Jeon Kyung-Jun said of Lee: "He is the type of player you would move heaven and earth to have in your team" - a sentiment the Catalan club obviously endorsed bearing in mind his purchase resulting in them being banned from making any new signings for two full transfer windows.

Lee's youth coaches in Korea have long been aware of his fantastic potential. Jung Jung-young, who was in charge of the U15 team Lee played in and who has worked with the whizkid from the age of 13 said: "He is a player that is close to genius. He already has most of what a top attacker needs. He is the kind of attacker that Korea finds it hard to produce. The opposition defenders don't know what he is going to do and where he is going to go."

Indeed, since his performances for the U16s late last year, Lee's stock has risen significantly and he is now regularly spoken about in the Korean media. Uli Stielike, the new coach of the Taeguk Warriors, was asked in a recent press conference about his opinions on Lee and what chances he has of being called up to the senior setup in future or at least the U19s.

"Many people are talking about Lee," the former Real Madrid midfielder replied. "I haven't seen him play live yet but he is a great talent and I will be keeping a close eye on his progress. This is an important stage in his career and he needs to continue working hard and growing as a player."

Thus, while Lee is clearly a potential star on the pitch, what are his chances of following Park Ji-sung as the 'David Beckham of Asia' off the pitch?

A lot will obviously depends on his on-field development in the next few years. At the moment the billboards and TV advertisements in Korea still focus heavily on established stars such as the aforementioned Park and figure skater Kim Yuna.

Also, it is worth noting that Lee's current playing ban has somewhat halted his exposure to prospective sponsors and as a result it would be fair to say his marketing potential has yet to be maximized.

Despite this, it is clear that the future commercial earning potential for Lee is massive. When former South Korea captain great Park transferred to Manchester United in 2005 he became an overnight national hero, worshipped all over Asia by men and women alike.

Koreans and Asians in general, idolize their sports stars and, in the case of football, take great pride in one of their own making it big on the world stage. Barcelona certainly falls into this category and if Lee goes on to play for the first team, it will surely be only a matter of time before the likes of Adidas, Nike and Samsung come knocking.

Another interesting angle when looking at his potential commercial value could be the development of Lee's younger brother, Seung-Jun Lee, also set to join La Masia later this year.

The prospect of two brothers playing for Barcelona and the Korean national team at the same time would be a marketing dream and would undoubtedly generate huge commercial revenue.

Of course this is all a long way from fruition and one only has to look at the spectacular demise of former American prodigy Freddie Adu as an example of how not all sporting fledglings fulfill their potential.

Nonetheless it is evident from the past success of Park, and through the continued globalization of the game, that the sky is the limit for Lee in terms of future commercial earnings for himself and income generated for prospective sponsors.

Furthermore, his boyish good looks and appeal to young women means he has every chance of becoming Korea's next pin up boy, further enhancing his marketability and earning potential.

While it is clearly too early to predict the eventual outcome of Seung-Woo Lee's footballing career with any certainty, evidence thus far and opinion from the world's best youth coaches and scouts suggest he can go to the very top of the game.

A household name in Korea from the age of 12, and impending money spinner off the field, only time will tell whether he really is the 'Korean Messi'.

Whatever the future holds, the footballing world will have to wait with anticipation until the U17s World Cup in New Zealand later this year to catch a glimpse of Asia's latest sporting prodigy in action again.


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