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 By John Duerden

Jeonbuk striker Lee Dong-Gook's last chance to shine at Club World Cup

Lee Dong-Gook
Lee Dong-Gook is the Korean league's all-time top scorer.

Debuts can often set the scene for what follows in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Just minutes after coming off the bench for the first time for Middlesbrough in February 2007, Lee Dong-Gook's first touch was a shot that came back off the post. He never did score in the Premier League but it could all have gone very differently had the ball gone in rather than bounce out.

Lee's first game for Jeonbuk Motors two years later saw the South Korean net twice and he has gone on to become a club legend and the record goal scorer in both the K-League and the Asian Champions League.

Lee is 37 now: older, wiser and slower. But the goal scoring instinct still shines strongly. What happened, or didn't happen, in England is now just a footnote in his career. It may be the one most remembered outside Asia, which is slightly harsh, but that is football. Anyway, he has at least one more shot on the international stage to show the world what he can do.

On Sunday, exactly 10 years to the day after their meeting at the 2006 Club World Cup, Jeonbuk take on Club America of Mexico in the quarterfinals of the 2016 version. On Dec. 11, 2006 the CONCACAF champs won 1-0 in Tokyo. On Dec. 11, 2016 Jeonbuk try again, this time in Osaka. Only the city is different and perhaps, the result.

No Asian team has finished higher than third in the tournament. "We should do better than finishing in third place," Lee told Korean media last week. "I really want to win the first match against Club America."

A potential semifinal against Real Madrid, however, is a huge obstacle to a first Asian final. Lee opened the season with a goal in a friendly against Borussia Dortmund and wants to end it by scoring against the most successful in European history. "Against Real Madrid, I hope we can play a tight match and earn a victory in the end," he added.

It would be a fine way to mark what will likely be his last appearance on the global stage.

His first came at the 1998 World Cup, a cameo after the Koreans had already been eliminated in France that suggested the future was very bright indeed -- something confirmed when he won the Golden Boot at the 2000 Asian Cup.

Guus Hiddink then surprisingly omitted Lee from his 2002 World Cup squad. He couldn't watch as his fellow Taeguk Warriors reached the semifinal -- the fact that they also won exemption from their two-year military service just before he was to embark on his own can't have helped his mood.

Yet he was swiftly back in the national team, spearheading the attack through qualification for the 2006 World Cup and scoring some fabulous goals. Dick Advocaat arrived in 2005 and loved Lee, often suggesting that he should be gracing Europe with his talents.

But he tore a cruciate ligament playing for Pohang against Incheon two months before the tournament and that was that. The sight of the striker, hair spiky and dyed silver, being stretchered off was a devastating one. A place in his second World Cup was snatched away just weeks before kickoff when the player was in the form of his life.

Lee has come far since his days at Middlesbrough.

In that last game he had scored a spectacular volley, his seventh in just 10 appearances that season, yet his next shot in competitive football against Reading on a chilly afternoon on Feb. 24, 2007 in the Premier League 10 months later.

The long lay-off dented his confidence, and reduced his acceleration and agility. Had Lee gone straight to England's top tier match-fit and razor-sharp, perhaps it would have been different. But apart from an FA Cup strike, the goals didn't come and before too long, it was apparent that it wasn't going to work.

It was a tough time for him. He had already been banned from the national team for a year after a late-night drinking spree in Jakarta during the 2007 Asian Cup and, when his return home to join Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in 2008 didn't work out, it looked as if his career was going to fizzle out.

Then, in January 2009, Lee moved to Jeonbuk, scored a brace on his debut and never looked back. His arrival signalled the start of a new era for the club. By the end of his first season, he was the league's top scorer, helping the club to a first-ever league championship. Since then they have won three more (2011, 2014 and 2015) and Lee has gone on to score more goals than any other player in the league's 34 year-history -- breaking Dejan Damjanovic's 154 goal record with 192 in 439 games.

Lee has shone in the Asian Champions League too, with a record 32 goals in 55 appearances, an even more impressive feat given the fact that he didn't make his debut in the tournament until he was in his 30s.

The striker made it to the 2010 World Cup but a late hamstring injury limited his time on the pitch and, after missing out on the 2014 edition, he has not made an impact for his country since. But, at 37, he has one more chance to shine. If Jeonbuk can pass their Mexican test on Sunday, then a shot at Real Madrid will be the prize and a last chance to show the world what he is capable of.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

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