Every player dreams of his full professional debut but for Lee-Yoon-eui it came in particularly difficult circumstances.
There have been a few outfield players who had to play in goal for their teams. In a Coppa Italia match in 2004 against Lecce, David Di Michele, who had bagged a brace, was forced to play as a goalkeeper after Samir Handanovič was sent off and eventually saved a Mirko Vucinic spot kick to ensure his team’s victory. Chelsea and Manchester United have had similar experiences in recent years with John Terry, John O’Shea and Rio Ferdinand filling in as part-time goalkeepers. In Korea, the likes of Kim Eun-jung and Shin Tae-yong, the current Seongnam coach, have had to do the same.
But none of the above players mentioned had to go through what K-League club Sangju Sangmu’s Lee Yoon-eui had to. Sangmu are a military team and, over the history of Korean football, have helped Korean footballers keep themselves in good form while they are serving their military duties. Most of the very best players the country has ever produced have once in their career played for Sangmu and their 2011 season could not have started better. Sangmu were based in Gwangju until the 2010 season but after the deal with the city council expired, the city of Sangju decided to take the unpopular military team.
Sangju, having a population of just around 120,000, is a small city with nothing much else to do and its citizens had never even imagined having a professional football team representing the city. For this reason Sangmu actually had the fans’ support for the first time in their history. They have had some superb results on the pitch as well by making it all the way up to third place early in the current season with some of the league’s best players including the likes of Kim Jung-woo, a member of the 2010 World Cup squad who is still leading the goal scoring chart. However, just as everything seemed to be heading in the right direction, the match-fixing scandal broke out in May and 9 of the current Sangju squad have been arrested. Three of those players were goalkeepers and Kwon Soon-tae, owned by Jeonbuk Motors, is the only remaining goalkeeper at the club at the moment.
Although the transfer window has been open since 1 July, Sangju, being a military team, cannot sign a player and they were hit by a major blow when Kwon Soon-tae was sent off in a 2-1 home loss against Daegu FC. Midfielder Kwak Chul-ho played in goal after Kwon’s dismissal and saved a penalty in that game, but it still meant Sanju would not have a natural goalkeeper for the next match against FC Seoul, the 2010 Korean champions.
After testing Kwak Chul-ho, Kim Bum-jun and Lee Yoon-eui in training, Sangju turned to Lee, a 24 year-old full back who had only made one professional appearance for Gangwon FC in 2010 as a substitute in a League Cup match against Busan. In his second year as a professional footballer, Lee Yoon-eui had not played in a single game for Sangju this season but he was about to make his first full professional debut as a goalkeeper. After just 3 days of goalkeeping lessons, Lee was awkwardly warming up at the Seoul World Cup Stadium as a starting goalkeeper. Knowing Lee is not a natural goalkeeper, Seoul took a shot whenever they could, but Lee managed to keep a clean sheet in the first half after saving 7 shots on goal and Sangju were 1-0 up at half time thanks to a Kim Jung-woo spot kick.
Sadly, he could not keep it up in the second half. Just two minutes in he conceded an indirect free kick in the box after picking up the ball just after he himself had put it down. His teammates helped him out as all ten outfield players defended the free kick but nerves took hold. He started to struggle more and more and eventually Seoul equalised 7 minutes later through Dejan Damjanović. The Montenegrin international soon made it 2-1 for the home side and Lee Yoon-eui could not hold his head up in guilt as it was not particularly a difficult shot to save. When Sangju’s Kim Min-soo equalised 6 minutes before stoppages, Lee celebrated as if he was the scorer himself.
It would have been an above average professional debut for him if the match finished 2-2 but Seoul’s Bang Seung-hwan scored a late winner to kill the game and that was Lee Yoon-eui’s first 90 minutes as a professional footballer over. Every footballer remembers his debut and Lee Yoon-eui will be no exception but his debut was tainted by the sad reality of match-fixing.
It will probably be remembered as one of the saddest professional debuts by many but Lee Yoon-eui seemed like the happiest goalkeeper in the world in his post-match interview.
“I first started taking goalkeeping lessons three days prior to the match. I had played in goal in training before but that was just for fun and I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in a real match. The team is in a difficult situation and I thought if I did my best regardless of my position we would be able to win. It was my full professional debut and, even if it was as a goalkeeper, it’s an honour to play for the team. I made many mistakes as it’s not my natural position but I tried my best not to make it look too bad and not to cause any trouble for the teammates. I am an army man. If I am told to do something, I do it no matter what. If I had to play in goal again I would do it with no problem.”
Now that Kwon Soon-tae returns from his suspension, Lee Yoon-eui will have to wait for another chance to play that may never arrive but his dedication and sacrifice is the way Korean football should be headed. With more and more players being found to be involved in the match-fixing scandal, many are seriously starting to ask if the league should be suspended. Stories and players like Lee Yoon-eui are good enough reason why another way should be sought.
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