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South Korea
 By John Duerden

Teenager Seung-woo builds bridge between Korea and Barcelona

Seventeen-year-old South Korean Lee Seung-woo looks set to be promoted to Barca B, the path many legends, including Lionel Messi, have taken before making the first team. Photo credit: Lee Seung-woo

Just five years ago South Korea fell out with Barcelona in a big way when the arrival of the Catalan giants provoked a furious reaction on a sultry summer's night.

The perceived attitude, the lack of interest in the country and a prematch media conference from Pep Guardiola -- one that would have been seen as frosty had it come the night before a title-deciding Clasico instead of what was supposed to be a brand-building, fan-attracting exercise -- all left something of bad taste in the mouth.

It ended with fans in a half-empty stadium waving good riddance.

Now though, it is a little different. A 17-year-old Korean star looks set to be promoted to Barca B, and the Seoul media went into meltdown.

That's only a slight exaggeration, but then there's always plenty of hype around Lee Seung-woo.

The twinkle-toed teen has made more headlines than players twice his age, some for on the pitch antics, others for not. He joined the fabled academy in 2011 after impressing in a youth tournament.

In his first season with the club's Infantil A squad, he scored 39 goals in 29 games. The fact that he surpassed a certain Argentine at the same stage was, of course, mentioned and the nickname was inevitable too.

Lee, small but in increasingly perfect form, was quickly seen as the diamond in the club's youth ranks. He was soon to become, as Marca said, the rough diamond that cut the Blaugrana.

In 2013, at the age of 15, he was banned from playing competitive games as his signing was found by FIFA to be in breach of its article 19, which deals with the regulations on the status and transfer of players.

It deals with the protection of minors and prohibits international transfers under the age of 18, though there are three exceptions and one of those is the player's parents moving to the country where the club is located.

At the time, Lee's folks were preparing to do just that but it was too late (there were accusations that Lee was "grassed up" by an anonymous source and no prizes for guessing where Barcelona thought that came from).

In 2014 FIFA extended Lee's ban to a number of other youth players (including compatriot Paik Seung-ho) and gave Barca a two-window transfer ban.

The young Korean can't play competitive games until his 18th birthday. Fortunately, that is less than six months away. The countdown has begun.

Lee Seung-woo, right, has scored 39 goals in just 29 games for Barcelona's Infantil A squad in his first season. Photo credit: Lee Seung-woo

Is Lee worth the hassle? Plenty think so. He took the AFC U16 championships by storm in 2014.

In the quarterfinal against bitter rivals, Japan, the red-shirted and blond-haired forward scored twice in a 2-0 win. The second took the breath away, as the teenager picked up the ball inside his half, sprinted past half of the Samurai Blue team and then rounded the keeper.

Japanese defender Tomiyasu Takehiro tried to sum up what it was like facing such a player -- fast, skillful with seemingly perfect technique and belief to match. "If you don't foul him, then you can't stop him."

The 7-1 semifinal triumph over Syria was even better. One goal and four assists, and it was all set for the final with North Korea.

The team from the other side of the 38th parallel gave the star plenty of attention and a few bruises, and he struggled to deal with it. It was a valuable lesson as the boys from Seoul lost narrowly 2-1.

He is still confident, though. Too much so, say some at home, though his fans are many.

In South Korea, players, especially young ones, are supposed to be keen but not heard. In April 2015, representing his homeland on home soil for the first time since joining Barcelona, Lee's obvious displeasure at being substituted was noted in a country where players are expected to trot off the pitch quickly and then turn to bow to teammates still playing.

Lee was perhaps trying to impress too much under a major spotlight and at least said the right things.

"I had problems with my touch and there were many things that I personally regret," Lee said. "This is my first game on Korean soil in the Taeguk jersey, but it was not satisfying. I will do my best in the remaining games and be a better teammate."

Yet this is a boy who is receiving his football education in Spain. He is there to learn, absorb, study and improve, and picking up European habits -- both good and bad -- is part of the deal.

Lee Seung-woo, second from right, has been seen as the diamond in Barcelona's youth ranks. Photo credit: Lee Seung-woo

"A lot of [the] world's best players went through Barça B," Lee said this week as he returned home again. "I know that in Korea, I've been told that I lack maturity and physicality. But Barcelona just promoted me to their professional team. Over there, they see me differently. So I thank them."

The conflict between his European life and hyped up South Korea visits is likely to be a recurring theme, assuming he stays in the big leagues and becomes a full international. He won't be the first Taeguk Warrior to have issues in this regard, but those who went before were more discreet.

Any criticism has been forgotten over the past few days amid the general excitement. If Lee does make the first team, he will become the biggest name in South Korean sport and forgiven a good deal of brashness, however relative.

For now the focus is on making the grade with Barca's B, the final step before becoming a first-team squad member.

He said: "I didn't think I'd get an opportunity this quickly. This is the result of my years worth of hard work. My goal is to make my debut in Barcelona's top team within two to three years."

Barcelona rate Lee and are keen to ensure he is not tempted elsewhere and reports of Real Madrid interest in March brought back bad memories of past prodigies prematurely leaving.

Plenty of stars -- such as Messi (it is hard to write about Lee without mentioning the Argentine by name at least once), Xavi and Iniesta -- have followed the same path. But while it is well-trodden, it is not easy. It can be rough and tough, especially with grizzled old pros ready to give the latest Barca big thing some rough treatment.

That's all in the future for Lee. In fact, all is in the future for Lee. His and Barca's last trips to Korea were not the happiest.

But if they visit together in the future, it could be very different.

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


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