The Monday Profile: Tadanari Lee
For today’s profile, we welcome back Michael Hudson, a long standing friend of the blog and the mastermind behind The Accidental Groundhopper website. Here, Michael, who can be followed on Twitter at @DolphinHotel, turns his attention to a player on the brink of signing for Southampton, drawing as he does on his immense experience following the game in Asia.
Southampton fans needn’t worry about their prospective new striker’s ability to acclimatise to life overseas. Growing up Korean-Japanese leaves you accustomed to feeling like an odd man out.
The 26-year-old hero of Japan’s 2011 Asian Cup win was born Lee Chung-sung. A fourth-generation Korean, his parents owned a Korean restaurant in Tokyo and sent their son to an elementary school run by one of two organisations representing the sizeable ethnic Korean population in Japan. As a rising star of FC Tokyo’s youth teams, Lee achieved a childhood dream when he was called up for training with the South Korean Under-19 squad in 2004. ‘My Korean language was not 100% but as an 18-year-old boy I thought that everybody was the same…that I would be very, very welcomed by Korean people as a Japanese-Korean’, he later told the English journalist Sean Carroll. He returned disillusioned, the complex and often fractious nature of relations between the two countries manifesting itself in the taunts of fellow training squad members who dismissively labelled the teenage striker ‘panchoppari’ – a pejorative term meaning ‘half-Japanese’.
If certain people in South Korea didn’t want him, the JFA certainly did. Encouraged by the national football authorities, Lee applied for and received Japanese citizenship in time to represent the Blue Samarai’s U23 side at the Beijing Summer Olympics, turning out alongside Keisuke Honda and Atsuto Uchida, a 2011 Champions League semi-finalist with Schalke 04. Despite his early potential, Lee was something of a late bloomer internationally, making his full senior debut just three weeks before the left-footed volley which beat Australia in the final of the Asian Cup. “The only thing that crossed my mind was to smash the ball home,” was his impressively nerveless response when asked how he felt at the time.
A regular J-League starter since joining Kashiwa Reysol in 2005, Lee’s two and a bit seasons at Sanfrecce Hiroshima have seen him make significant developments to his game under coach Mihailo Petrović – a Yugoslav international who formerly managed Red Star Belgrade, Olimpija Ljubliana, Dinamo Zagreb and Sturm Graz. Petrović’s philosophy is neatly summarised by his response to losing the 2010 J.League Cup final to Jubilo Iwata, which his team eventually lost 5-3 despite holding a 2-1 lead until the final minute of regular time: “Players tend to think it’s ok just to defend a lead by tightening up in front of goal, but it’s not ok. You also have to run quickly into the space the losing team gives you and attack.” While his preferred 3-4-3 formation nominally used Lee alongside Hisato Sato – a diminutive, fleet-footed spearhead whose game has more in common with Pippo Inzaghi than Rickie Lambert – the emphasis on positional fluidity within Hiroshima’s aggressive counter-attacking style meant even star strikers needed to be adaptable. As Alan Gibson, editor of JSoccerMagazine told BBC Radio Solent: ‘Lee was playing forward but he was covering midfield and both wings. He’s a very good team player, very willing to get around.’
Not as physically robust or as aerially adept as recent West Ham United target Ryoichi Maeda, Lee’s speed, positional awareness and ability to find the net should prove sufficient to see him and Lambert wreak havoc among Championship defences. Interviewed by Sean Carroll, Lee revealed his influences were ‘Raul and Inzaghi. Also Cristiano Ronaldo, Dennis Bergkamp – I have watched DVDs of these players many times’, although his choreographed goal celebrations suggest he’s also learnt from his long-time girlfriend Ayumi Ito, an ex-member of the Korean pop band Sugar. Interestingly, one translation of the Chinese characters which make up Tadanari is ‘to become loyal’. Southampton fans should hope the man who once described himself as ‘not Korean, not Japanese, just a footballer’ keeps on living up to his adopted name.