"I remember when this was football fields," says Lee Young-Pyo, as he looks out at the crowded streets of eastern Seoul."Where we sit now," he adds referring to the coffee shop situated on the ground floor of one of a number of high-rise office/apartment blocks that tower above a large shopping mall called Star City,"is exactly where I played football for Konkuk University for four years. This is where the pitch was."
Now 34, Lee was still a student in 1999 when he was first called to the South Korean national team to face Mexico at the Olympic Stadium, just across the Han River, still swollen from the previous week when the worst rain for a century caused chaos in the capital. It was the first of 127 appearances that spanned 12 years and three World Cups and, he says, one of his proudest moments. As you can imagine in a career that also included stints with PSV Eindhoven, Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund there are others.
This summer marks the first time since the last millennium that the veteran, who hardly seems to have aged since making his debut, has time to sit back and take stock. After retiring from international football following Korea's third place at the 2011 Asian Cup, Lee can watch the September start of qualification for the 2014 World Cup as an interested observer rather than getting ready to play on the left, but sometimes the right, side of defence or even on occasion, either side of midfield. He is thinking about his next move. Leaving Europe in 2009, he spent two successful seasons with Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal and is now a free agent and wondering whether to return to Europe, the Middle East or East Asia. Perhaps he will choose none and hang up his boots and shelve the famous Lee stepover. If so, Asian football will say goodbye to one of its greatest servants.
He was involved in one of its greatest moments at the 2002 World Cup, serving up the ball for the handsome head of Ahn Jung-hwan to score an extra-time winner to send co-hosts Korea to the last eight and Italy home."If you look at the whole World Cup we played really well," Lee told ESPNsoccernet."We beat Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain and played Germany and Turkey. The standard of our performances was consistently excellent all the way to the semi-final."
Not all see it that way with Italy, especially full of complaints about Korea being on the receiving end of, at best, favourable officiating by referee Bryon Moreno, or at worst, an orchestrated campaign by FIFA to ensure Asian representation in the semi-finals."Perhaps because Italy are such a strong team then losing to a team like Korea at that time was hard to accept for them and it could have been that they were looking for an excuse and they talked about the referee," suggests Lee, who turned down an offer to join AS Roma in 2006, with a shrug as he sips on a cappuccino."If you look at the result of the match, it can seem strange to see a big team like Italy losing to Korea but having played in the match and having watched the videos of the game many times, there's no reason to think that. If you look at the match, there is no doubt that it was won by Korea fair and square."
Lee's performances in the tournament meant that Guus Hiddink, the full-back's favourite coach due to his ability to both focus and relax players ahead of the biggest of games, took Lee and Park Ji-sung to PSV Eindhoven later that year. During his three years in Holland, Lee won two titles and helped the team reach the semi-finals of the 2004-05 Champions League and a narrow defeat by AC Milan. Shortly after, he was at Tottenham with Martin Jol proclaiming him to be one of the best left-backs in Europe. Three seasons and 93 appearances followed for the London team before he left for Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2008.
As an Asian player, his European experience is second to none though these days prospects from the east tend to go straight to the big leagues –the latest being Ji Dong-won who left the K-League for Sunderland last month. Lee still believes that the Netherlands is a great stepping stone as"Dutch clubs teach youngsters how to play football, in England, the focus is on winning." He uses the example of Martin Jol, fired by Tottenham in October 2007."Dutch coaches came to Korea and tried to teach players how to play football but you need time to do that. In England, the club owners have no patience and want good results from the beginning. Jol is a very good coach. On and off the pitch, everyone liked him, the players and the club officials. I don't know exactly but maybe Jol didn't have a good relationship with the chairman."
There is another aspect of English football that Lee believes sets it apart from the other big leagues. We met just 24 hours after the South Korean television started showing the 'murder tackle' that saw Lee Chung-yong's leg broken in a pre-season friendly playing for Bolton Wanderers against Newport County.
"I haven't seen the video, but I can imagine what happened," says Lee."Having played there, I know that it is a physical and aggressive league and I like that but there is a difference between being a tough, physical fast-paced league and intentionally injuring another player. One of the things I noticed in England is that you often see players intentionally attacking other players. That is nothing to do with the quality of the league or it being tough or physical, it's just unsportsmanlike. It is a weak point of English football."
Was he on the receiving end? In the middle of the Seoul summer, Lee is not the only one wearing shorts and sandals but few passers-by would have legs full of scars, dents and stud marks."All these come from England," he laughs and adds diplomatically:"I don't know exactly who from." One could have been a lasting memento of a challenge from David Someill of Manchester City in 2006 that was, according to Jol, one of the worst tackles ever. Lee was out of action for three weeks."Football is a physical game but it is not a game in which bones should be broken. There are rules. As a player, we all know the difference between an injury that comes from a tough physical contest and one that is intentional. Every player knows the difference."
Mature, modest and professional, he still had the occasional problem settling in Europe. Even now, the television sight of famous players berating each other after conceding a goal can still raise eyebrows in East Asian households and Lee admits that it was something he struggled with."In Korea, it is not like that. Football is a team sport and the culture is that if your colleagues or coach make a mistake, it is a team mistake and my mistake ... I don't mean that European players are selfish; it is just a different culture. The first time someone told me that I had made a mistake I was very angry and upset but a little later I understood that this was a different culture and it was not personal. After the game in the dressing room, everything is forgotten."
Something that stuck in the mind, if not in the stomach was the infamous lasagna in May 2006. Heading into the final match of the season, Lee's first in England, Spurs were in fourth and heading for the Champions League. The day of the final game at West Ham dawned however with half the team suffering from food poisoning."I was fine but five or six players were sick and these were important players for the team. We had a meeting before the game and Martin Jol said to the players 'this is such an important match shall we postpone the game?' All the players said, 'let's play'. Of course we lost and finished fifth. Looking back then perhaps we should have tried to postpone it as I think the FA would have understood." Or, he adds with a smile,"Perhaps the players just wanted to go on vacation."
The Korean has earned whatever rest comes his way but you sense there is still a little more to come from Lee Young-Pyo.