|South Korean international midfielder Paik Seung-ho reacts after scoring a goal against Argentina during the FIFA U-20 World Cup group stage match at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium, May 23. / Yonhap|
By John Duerden
There was plenty of pride in the previous decade when South Korea started to see its young players go to Barcelona. At a time when the Spanish team was the best in the world, Lee Seung-woo and Paik Seung-ho were members of the youth set-up and, while debuting on the first team was still far away, just being there was enough.
There was special excitement about Lee, who went to Barcelona at the age of 12 and quickly started to set new goal-scoring records. Inevitably, he became known as the "Korean Messi," due to the comparisons with a certain Argentine.
Paik was a midfielder and rated equally highly and with Jang Gyeol-hee, who was also there. People believed that surely at least one of them would make it all the way.
It never really worked out. One problem was that Barcelona's two-year ban on registering new players in 2014, due to a breach of international transfer regulations protecting young talent, meant that valuable time was lost. By the time the youngsters were 18 and ready to play again, the first team seemed farther away than ever.
Still, leaving Barcelona, even as a youngster, should open plenty of doors, and even going down one level still means that there are a lot of big European clubs interested. But this has not really been the case. Lee went from Verona in Italy to Sint-Truidense in Belgium, and in February moved on loan to Portimonese in Portugal. Lee is still only 23 so has time on his side, but the career path has not turned out to be quite as glamorous as once expected and hoped. Some feel he should have returned to Korea instead of heading to Portugal, in order to play in the K-League for the first time. He would be a big name back home, and coming home would surely do his national team chances no harm.
That was not to be, but with Lee's career on something of a downward trajectory, a reset may be the best idea going forward.
Paik has finally come home though it has been a long and messy process. While the more exciting Lee got the headlines, coaches at Barcelona felt that the all-round midfielder, Paik, had a better chance of making it to the top. After leaving the club, Paik stayed in Spain with the Peralada team, and then with Girona, before moving to Germany's second tier with Darmstadt. After a season and a half, he has just returned home.
Nevertheless, he has not come back to the Suwon Bluewings, the club where he started as a youth player and one that supported him financially during his early days in Spain. There was, the club says, an agreement that this support had been provided in the understanding that Paik would come to Suwon if or when he came home.
Paik had been expected to return to Suwon, but an agreement could not be reached. Now he has joined the Jeonbuk Motors.
Paik offered to return around 300 million won that he had received from Suwon, but the club is thought to want not only that, but also possibly to seek considerably more in interest and damages. Legal action could follow.
"We've tried several times to rebuild trust with Paik Seung-ho," a Suwon official was quoted as saying. "It's really unfortunate that there are stories out there that we didn't want to sign him."
It's all quite messy. Maybe being Barcelona youth stars was not quite the ticket to the top that had been thought, but there is still time for both Lee and Paik to rebuild their careers that have veered off-track.