Korean Soccer Coach Steps Down After Leukemia Diagnosis

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han

Lee Kwang-jong, the head coach of the South Korean men’s under-23 national soccer team, has stepped down from his position after he was diagnosed with leukemia, according to reports on Thursday.

Lee, 49, was set to lead Korea’s under-23 team to next year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Last October, he also guided the team to its first gold medal finish at the Asian Games for the first time in 28 years.

Before the diagnoses, Lee was in Thailand as his team was preparing to take part in the 2015 King’s Cup, an international exhibition tournament. However, Lee flew home just before Korea’s first match against Uzbekistan on Feb. 1 with what was initially thought to be a fever. It was later revealed that he was keeping his diagnosis a secret to prevent it from becoming a distraction to his players during the tournament.

A plethora of Korea’s premier soccer talents have rose to stardom under Lee’s guidance, including the likes of Son Heung-min, who at age 22 has already become the country’s superstar athlete.

Lee is considered a rare breed in that he was never a star player during his playing career unlike many prominent soccer coaches in Korea who enjoyed success as players. Between 1988 and 1997, he played in just over 200 matches in the K League and has never played for the national team.

Even after retiring, Lee distanced himself from the spotlight of more glamorous and higher-paying coaching jobs in Korea’s professional soccer league and devoted himself to nurturing young players at the youth level. Since 2003, he coached youth national teams in all age groups, including under-15, under-17 and under-20, before becoming the under-23 side’s head coach last year.

Lee’s first notable coaching accomplishment came in 2009 when he led South Korea to the quarterfinals of the U-17 World Cup after beating Uruguay, Algeria and Mexico. Son and Kim Jin-su, who spearheaded Korea to its best ever showing at the tournament, have since then developed into key players for today’s senior national team.

Since 2009, Lee has won the Under-19 Asian Championship title and qualified to the Under-2o World Cup twice, in which Korea advanced to the knockout stage both times. After Lee helped the Under-23 team win the Asian Games gold medal last year, some even considered him as a potential long-term candidate to replace German head coach Uli Stielike after the 2018 FIFA World Cup.


Featured image courtesy of Seoul Shinmun