Lee Keun-ho is a rarity in modern soccer. A proud sergeant serving in the South Korean military, the bustling little forward plays not just for the love of the game, but also for the love of his country.
He certainly is not playing for the money.
With a military pay packet of less than US$150 per month, Lee’s salary is dwarfed by those of the soccer superstars on show at the World Cup in Brazil. Argentina’s Lionel Messi, who plays for Spanish side Barcelona, is thought to be the world’s best-paid player with a net annual salary of US$27.4 million, but money mattered little to Lee on Tuesday when South Korea faced Russia in their opening Group H game in Cuiaba.
Coming on as a second-half substitute for the ineffective Park Chu-young, Lee hustled and scavenged for possession before opening the scoring with the most fortunate of strikes.
His rasping shot from outside the penalty area skimmed off Russia goalkeeper Igor Afinkeev’s palms and looped into the net to give South Korea a 1-0 lead in the 68th minute.
Lee raced to the sidelines in joy, before giving fans a sharp military salute in celebration. His mind a blank, he said, he could not think of anything else to do.
South Korea were unable to hold their lead, conceding a soft equalizer six minutes later, but Lee’s goal was met with joy back home, where the mood has been one of grief and despair following the Sewol ferry disaster in April.
The ferry sank on a routine journey from Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju. Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school.
Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.
Lee’s military soccer club, Sangju Sangmu, said he is an inspiration to everyone back home.
“We are so proud of him, especially given that there are not many K-League players in the squad and that [South] Korea was not expecting a lot due to the national atmosphere,” a Sangmu official said by telephone on Wednesday. “We are so happy that he helped South Korea to play a good game ... and I am sure it gave hope not only to [South] Korean citizens, but also the 600,000 soldiers around the country. He will be discharged from military service on Sept. 16.”
With an ever-present threat from its bellicose neighbor to the North, South Korea’s military drafts all able-bodied men for a period of almost two years.
Tensions between the two Koreas remain high since their 1950 to 1953 war ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
Shortly after being voted Asian Player of the Year in 2012, Lee put dreams of a lucrative move to Europe on hold to fulfill his obligation to his country. Although he has been able to continue his career at Sangmu, there is no doubt his talent has not been allowed to flourish in the way it would have with a move to Europe.
The 29-year-old has said he has no regrets about the timing of his national service and after suffering the heartbreak of being cut from South Korea’s 2010 World Cup squad he is determined to make the most of his opportunity in Brazil.
“I’ve been waiting for this World Cup for so long, but I’d never thought I would even score,” Lee told FIFA’s Web site. “I think I was lucky, but it wasn’t bad for a start from me.”
Lee was recently promoted to sergeant in the army. It would be no surprise if coach Hong Myung-bo promotes him to the starting lineup against Algeria on Sunday.