Korean Soccer Whiz Kid Eying to Win FIFA Ballon d’Or

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han

South Korean soccer prodigy Lee Seung-woo, who plays for the youth developmental team of worldly renowned Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona, is never shy about making bold statements. Last September, the then 16-year-old sparked controversy after saying that “beating a team at the level of Japan will be easy” ahead of Korea’s quarterfinals match against its arch rival at the Asian Under-16 Championships. He then kept his word by scoring two goals, one of which was a stunning solo effort, in Korea’s convincing 2-0 win.

This time around, Lee has set a far loftier goal. He now wants to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or, an annual award given by international soccer’s governing body to a player who’s been voted by journalists, national team coaches and captains. Since 2008, the prestigious award has been monopolized by superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who are considered to be in a class of their own even among the world’s very best. Although Lee hasn’t yet played in a professional match due to age restrictions, the media in Europe have touted Lee, now 17, as the “Korean Messi” because of his undeniable potential.

“It’s an honor to be called the Korean Messi,” Lee said in a press conference at the Incheon Airport on Wednesday after he arrived from Spain to join Korea’s under-18 team for the upcoming international tournament in Suwon. “I want to be the best just like Messi. Just like Messi, my goal is to win the Ballon d’Or.”

Lee is eligible to sign a professional contract with Barcelona when he turns 18 in January of next year. If that were to happen, Lee will likely play alongside Messi at Barcelona. Messi, already among soccer’s all-time greats at age 27, won four straight Ballon d’Ors from 2009 to 2012, during which he won three Spanish league titles and two European Champions League trophies. Last January, Lee tweeted a photo he took with Messi at Barcelona’s training center and expressed his dream to one day play next to his idol.

Additionally, Lee also said that he aims to become Korea’s youngest ever player to represent the country at senior level. The current record is held by Kim Pan-keun, who made his international debut at just 17 years and 241 days old in 1983. Lee turned 17 on Jan. 6 last year, and he would have to be selected to Korean men’s national team before September to break Kim’s record. South Korea has six matches scheduled between now and September.

“Playing for the senior national team has been my dream since I was a little kid,” Lee said. “I want to be my country’s youngest player in history.”