Lee Kang-in has been called “a joy” and “a flower” by South Korea coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his performance in their Asian Cup opener showed why the German is so smitten.
The Paris Saint-Germain attacking midfielder stamped his class all over South Korea’s 3-1 win over Bahrain on Monday, scoring two second-half goals in Doha.
His mesmerising dribbles and razor-sharp passing eclipsed star team-mate Son Heung-min and earned him the man of the match award.
Lee was never fully trusted by Klinsmann’s predecessor Paulo Bento, who used him mostly as an impact substitute at the 2022 World Cup.
But Klinsmann has made the 22-year-old the linchpin of his side since taking over a year ago.
“Kang-in is coming through,” he said after naming his squad for the tournament.
“He’s like a flower that starts to bloom.”
Lee joined PSG from Mallorca last summer and has established himself in the first team for the French champions.
He has scored three goals for his club, who currently top the domestic table and have also qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League.
Lee said after Monday’s game that he is “learning a lot” at PSG alongside world-class players such as Kylian Mbappe.
“He understands now, step by step, not only to do his thing in the game going forward and maybe scoring a goal or giving an assist and being a dribbler and all that — he also works hard defensively,” Klinsmann said after a World Cup qualifying win over Thailand in November.
“It’s fantastic for Korean football and the national team to have a player like him to go to a completely new level.”
– Title drought –
Lee was part of the South Korea team that won gold at the Asian Games in China in October, earning himself an exemption from military service in the process.
His goal now is to help his country win the Asian Cup for the first time since 1960.
“Everyone in the dressing room and everyone back home, the whole nation, are waiting for this trophy,” he said.
“We haven’t won it for 64 years so we’re all motivated and hungry for this tournament.”
South Korea face Jordan in their next game on Saturday.
They are among the front-runners to lift the trophy, although Japan are seen as the tournament favourites.
Klinsmann has one of the strongest squads at the Asian Cup, with Tottenham Hotspur forward Son, Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae and Wolverhampton Wanderers forward Hwang Hee-chan all at his disposal.
But Lee has the potential to outshine them all, and Klinsmann would not be surprised if he does.
“You need players that can cross the balls in, you need runs into the box, you need fast passing, high tempo and getting balls if possible maybe behind the backline if there’s a little bit of space,” the coach has said.
“Kang-in can play these balls. He can score himself.
“The growth of Kang-in over the last six months is a joy for us as coaches.”