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Lebanon 2000: Lee Dong-gook looks back

Kuala Lumpur: Turning 40 next April, evergreen striker Lee Dong-gook is still scoring goals at the continental level for club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. We rewind the clock 18 years, to when a fresh-faced young forward from Pohang made the world take notice at the 2000 AFC Asian Cup.

Lee's impressive career, that keeps recording new milestones for goals and longevity, can be considered to have truly begun on the biggest stage at the 2000 AFC Asian Cup in Lebanon.

The prodigiously talented young forward had already shown his ability at the 1998 AFC U-19 Championship, where he was named Top Scorer and MVP, and had also helped Pohang Steelers win the 1997-1998 Asian Club Championship.

But it was in the AFC's most prestigious national team tournament that the then 21-year-old made his mark in.

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The rising star had already had his first taste of national team action, at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. However, his 13-minute cameo against the Netherlands in a 5-0 defeat would not have been the best memory in what was to become a storied career with the Taeguk Warriors.

The AFC Asian Cup provided him with a golden chance to begin the first chapter.

“It was a long time ago,” reflects Lee on a tournament that took place nearly two decades ago. “At that time, Huh Jung-moo was the coach and I was among the youngest players."

Drawn in Group B with China PR, Kuwait and Indonesia, the Koreans started the tournament in exciting fashion with a 2-2 draw with their fellow East Asians, before a disappointing 1-0 defeat to the Kuwaitis.

That brought up a must-win match against Indonesia, with Lee and his teammates needing all three points to ensure a place in the knockout stage as one of the two best third-placed sides.

And their young targetman rose to the occasion at Beirut's Sports City Stadium, firing home a hat-trick as Korea Republic won 3-0 and advanced to a quarter-final date with Islamic Republic of Iran

"I remember it was a difficult environment in Lebanon," says Lee. "And my knee wasn’t that good then, but I didn't want to miss the quarter-final, I had to play against Iran.

"We went down 1-0 but right before half-time one of the current coaches in Jeonbuk, Kim Sang-sik, scored and we went to extra-time.

"At that time, the tournament was using the Golden Goal rule, so any goal would end the game."

Having come off the bench in the 75th minute, Lee needed just nine minutes of extra-time to ensure he would make the headlines.

A typical lung-busting run from defence from Hong Myung-bo saw the ball find another substitute Noh Jung-youn on the right flank and his low cross was crashed into the roof of the net by the onrushing Lee to end proceedings in dramatic fashion..

"I still remember the moment I scored the goal," he said. "It was exciting because Iran at that time were one of the strongest teams in Asia."

Unfortunately for Korea Republic, Lee's next late goal was to prove not enough to turn the tie around, as the East Asians lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia, with the striker's 91st minute effort coming after Talal Al Meshal's brace had already put the Green Falcons two up.

Nevertheless, the Pohang-man was still not done scoring as he scored his sixth and final goal of the campaign in the third place play-off against China PR to ensure the bronze medal for the Koreans.

The strike was important for not just his country, but also Lee personally as it ensured he would finish as the tournament's Top Scorer ahead of Japan pair Akinori Nishizawa and Naohiro Takahara.

"My goal was just to play, not specifically to be top scorer. I remember I put everything I had into those games, I was just trying to create goal-scoring opportunities not necessarily for a goal for me – but a goal for the team.

"I just wanted to play as much as possible. The result at the end of the tournament wasn’t so bad then, as I could become Top Scorer."

That desire to play still burns within the heart of the man who has already been a professional for 20 years of his life so far - although he wryly admits he won't be the 2019 AFC Asian Cup MVP.

"Everyone around me and myself had the same thought: after winning the 2016 AFC Champions League that it would be the end of Lee Dong-gook’s time. That I couldn’t give any more good performances. But that motivated me. Hearing people say that I couldn’t play at this level anymore because I was too old, made me want to try and prove them wrong.

"Sooner or later, I will finish my playing career, but I think retirement will make people think I don’t have the ability anymore, and while I still have something to give I will keep playing. Even when I face young players in the K-League, I feel I can still compete with them and so I’m still here."

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