“As a fan, I’d rather see a 4-4 draw than a 0-0, but when I’m playing I don’t care if the match is boring to watch,” Korea Republic defender and captain Lee Sangmin tells FIFA.com ahead of his side’s upcoming Round of 16 tie against Belgium. “My priority is to make sure we don’t concede a goal.”
Speaking from the comfort of the Coquimbo hotel he and his team-mates have been calling home since the start of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015, Sangmin was responding to those who fear Wednesday’s match in La Serena may fail to generate much in the way of excitement. Those fears are founded on the fact that of the 16 remaining sides in the competition, the Belgians and South Koreans have scored the fewest goals to date: two apiece, to be exact.
That said, the Taeguk Warriors are the only team left in the tournament yet to concede. Discussing their clean sheets against group opponents Brazil, Guinea and England, the skipper said: “The three teams that we faced in the group phase were all pretty attack-minded. What we tried to do first and foremost was to defend well, keep things tight and then hit on the counter. It worked out pretty well, as you can see.”
Before speaking to Sangmin, FIFA.com had time for a few words with his coach Choi Jincheul, who had nothing but praise for the player: “He’s the leader of our team. He’s the one who runs everything on the pitch, and he’s the kind of player who sets an example for others to follow. I have a lot of faith in him and respect for him too.”
A born leader
A former Korea Republic international with 65 caps to his name and a mainstay of the sides that appeared at the Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 FIFA World Cup™ finals, Jincheul added: “I was a defender myself and I know how difficult it is to control the rest of the team from the back. It’s a job that Lee does really well.
“He’s our heartbeat. Whenever we’ve found ourselves in danger, he’s responded perfectly and marshalled his team-mates. Both him and the defence have impressed me more than anyone so far.”
Respect for one’s elders is a facet of Korean culture, all of which adds to Sangmin’s stature in the team, as he explained: “I was born in January, and in Korea you move up to the next class in March. We’re all the same age but I’m a year ahead in terms of studies, which is why I’ve been the captain since I was 14. I’m used to it now and I’ve picked up quite a bit of experience in the job.”
And like any good captain, he has no hesitation in praising his team-mates, who have all made their contributions to the Taeguk Warriors’ solid progress to date, not least mercurial forward Lee Seungwoo, the leading scorer in the Asian qualifiers.
Discussing what the front man brings to the team, Sangmin said: “He’s great at holding the ball up and he can keep two or three defenders occupied, which gives room for other players to breathe and creates more space. In a way, he helps us defend better because he tires the opposition defence out. He helps us be better.”
“With Lee Seungwoo, we can score more goals,” said Jincheul. As the fans will tell you, goals would certainly come in handy when Jincheul’s charges take on the Belgians, not least because a nerve-shredding penalty shootout will otherwise be needed to settle the issue.