MOST TEENAGERS COUNT DOWN THE DAYS until they turn 18, eagerly anticipating this milestone in their lives when they gain their independence and are able to do things that they couldn’t as a 17-year-old. Depending on the country, this list can include a variety of things, from being able to vote or drive, to being able to get a partner’s name indelibly inked to your forearm. For Lee Seung-Woo, however, there is one more thing that he can do now that he is 18: play for FC Barcelona.
His 18th birthday, at the start of January, coincided with the end of Barcelona’s ban on registering new players; a ban that ironically was partially caused by Lee’s own transfer to the Catalan giants back in 2011. In 2010, Lee Seung-Woo caught the eye of Barcelona’s scouts whilst representing South Korea in the Danone Cup, an international football tournament for children, held that year in Johannesburg, South Africa. He finished as the top scorer in the tournament, impressing the scouts enough to help earn himself a chance to join Barcelona. His move to the famed La Masia academy may have been a dream come true, but it also caught the attention of FIFA officials. This resulted in the game’s governing body imposing a two year transfer ban on the Catalan giants for breaking FIFA Article 19 on the international transfer of minors.
When the ban on registering new players finally ended on 4 January, Barcelona registered a massive 76 new players. Most of these recruits joined Barcelona’s youth system, but the first team was also strengthened, with Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal registering with the club in order to bolster a depleted squad. Lee Seung-Woo became Barcelona’s 77th signing two days later when he turned 18. Although he is unlikely to make his first team debut this season, he may well feature for Barcelona B at some point during the campaign. His Korean team-mate Paik Seung-Ho, who turned 18 last year, has already been training with the B side, and the pair’s debuts are hotly anticipated in the East Asian country.
So far, the only chance that fans have had to see these two talented players in action is on the international stage, leading to a heightened interest in the Korean youth sides by the local media. Despite being unable to match their 2002 World Cup heroics, the Korean national team have high expectations to live up to at home; after a poor showing in the last World Cup, the side returned from Brazil to find an angry crowd awaiting them at the airport.
The brown, sticky candy that they were pelted with showed just what the crowd thought of their performances in South America. However, South Korea’s footballers have had success in other recent tournaments, finishing third in the London Olympics, and winning the 2014 Asian Games on home soil. If Korea’s Barcelona youngsters reach their full potential, there is a hope that they can push the national side on to the next level. The thought of Lee Seung-Woo playing regularly for Barcelona and linking up with Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min, who himself is still young and improving year-on-year, is a very exciting prospect for fans of the Korean national team.
It is hard to find a talented forward player from outside of Spain or Argentina that isn’t known as the ‘Messi’ of his country to the rest of the world’s media. Lee Seung-Woo was given this moniker back when, during his first season at Barcelona, he broke scoring records set by a young Lionel Messi himself. While there have been numerous examples of wonderkids failing to live up to their potential, many scouts and coaches believe that Lee Seung-Woo is the real deal.
He showed his potential to the rest of the world in the under-16 Asian Championships when he scored five goals and won the award for player of the tournament. Two of those goals came in a quarter-final match against arch-rivals Japan, a game with added importance as the winners would qualify for the 2015 under-17 World Cup. Lee justified his rather arrogant pre-game comments that “as it is only Japan, we can win easily” by picking the ball up in his own half and single-handedly dribbling past the entire Japanese defence before rounding the goalkeeper for his second goal of the match.
South Korea couldn’t quite win the Asian championships, losing to North Korea in the final where Lee was heavily marked for the entire match. They did, however, make the most of their chance to play in the 2015 under-17 World Cup, finishing top of a group that included Brazil and England, before losing to Belgium in the knockout stages.
Just before the World Cup, fans in his hometown of Suwon got the chance to see Lee Seung-Woo first-hand as the Korean under-17s competed against Brazil, Croatia and Nigeria in the Suwon Continental Cup. During the tournament, Lee earned himself some criticism from the domestic press due to his perceived arrogant attitude, with the decision to dye his hair pink being given as evidence towards this. Lee himself gave a more sincere reason for his hair colour: he dyed it to help his grandmother follow him during the game.
During that tournament however, rather than Lee, it was his Barcelona teammate, Paik Seung-Ho, who impressed for South Korea. Playing in a deeper role on the pitch, Paik hasn’t received quite the same level of attention as Lee, but he is certainly held in high regard by the Barcelona youth coaches. Despite having to fight for his place in Barcelona’s youth teams in the past due to several other highly talented youngsters that play in the same position, Paik has taken on the challenges presented to him and, despite being ineligible to play for Barcelona B last year, has managed to impress enough that Luis Enrique even called him up to train with Messi et al in Barcelona’s first team.
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Read | La Masia: dilemmas from inside the world’s most famous academy
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Both Lee Seung-Woo and Paik Seung-Ho have the potential to be first team regulars for Barcelona, but the effects of Barcelona’s ban may have already adversely affected their careers. Lionel Messi had the opportunity to make his debut for Barcelona when he was just 16. Although it took another two seasons before the multiple Ballon d’Or winner had fully established himself as a regular for Barcelona, the experience gained playing for both the first team and for Barcelona B before his 18th birthday certainly helped advance his career and allow him to reach his potential. If they hadn’t have been banned, Lee and Paik may well have made their debuts for the Barcelona first team this season, but without the chance to gain vital experience of playing competitive football with Barcelona B, they may already be playing catch up.
Compared to some of Barcelona’s other youth prospects, Lee Seung-Woo and Paik Seung-Ho can consider themselves fortunate. In September last year, FIFA prevented nine of Barcelona’s youth players from even training with the team or living at La Masia. Lee was one of the players affected. Along with his Barcelona teammate Jang Gyeol-Hee, he moved back to his hometown to train with Korean second-tier club Suwon FC, who have since won promotion to Korea’s top-flight.
Although Lee is now back at Barcelona, Jang will continue training in Korea until his 18th birthday in April when he can return to Spain. At Suwon, at least Barcelona’s Korean players have some kind of support system in place, with the club being very understanding towards the two youngsters’ situation.
The same does not apply for all of Barcelona’s other non-EU youth players who were affected by the ban: Cameroonian Patrice Sousia, without the same support system in his own country, had to move in with a teammate’s family after being forced to leave La Masia. Japanese youth Takefusa Kubo, being far younger than the other players affected, had to leave Barcelona at the age of 13, and thus will miss out on spending his formative footballing years at the Spanish club.
The bans affect not just the players involved but their whole families who, in many cases, have uprooted their lives in order to move to Barcelona and give their child the chance of a La Masia education. In the past, FIFA was more lenient on cases where a player’s family had moved abroad with them, and Californian Ben Lederman’s parents had hoped that the support system provided by his family being with him would allow Lederman to stay at Barcelona. However, with their appeals falling on deaf ears, the Ledermans had to return to the States, uprooting their family for a second time, this time against their wishes.
With such devastating potential effects on these young players’ futures, FIFA’s handling of this case surely has to be questioned. The careers of these potential future stars of the game have felt the brunt of FIFA’s punishment. Barcelona themselves have emerged relatively unscathed from their transfer ban, mainly due to a spending spree during the summer of 2014 whilst they were appealing FIFA’s decision. During that time they brought in Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitić, and Thomas Vermaelen among others. They have also been allowed to reach agreements with Atlético Madrid and Sevilla which have allowed them to bring in Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal respectively without other clubs being able to take advantage of Barcelona’s ban to poach these players for themselves. Although the club has been affected by their ban on signing players, it has hardly been debilitating, whereas for the players that Article 19 is supposed to protect, the consequences of FIFA’s rulings have been utterly devastating.
Article 19 was set up to prevent clubs and agents from bringing in and exploiting underage players who were risking their futures to travel to the other side of the world for the relatively small chance of making it as a professional footballer. But it is very clear that in this case they have caused severe hardship and distress for those involved; players like Lederman, Jang and Sousia have already taken that huge risk, and FIFA’s decision severely reduces the chances that the gamble these players have made on their futures actually pays off.
One of the aims of Article 19 was to prevent young, vulnerable players from ending up homeless on the streets of Europe, but in the case of Barcelona, the victims of its enforcement have actually been forced to leave their home at La Masia, with Patrice Sousia very nearly ending up living on the streets because of it. Surely some other course of action, such as an amnesty on the players already signed, would have been a better way to deal with this issue.
If it feels like the damage caused to these young players is being overstated, then consider for a moment Lee Seung-Woo’s comments about the perception of players of his height in South Korea. In an interview with South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo, Lee said that if Lionel Messi had been born in Korea, he may well have been a P.E. teacher rather than a footballer. Lee may have only been half joking, but in a sport where players that thrive in certain environments may fail in others, the implications of FIFA’s ban may be more far-reaching than some people imagine.
Being from outside the EU himself, Lionel Messi may well have been unable to join Barcelona if FIFA’s current rules had been more rigorously applied back when he was a young teenager. Without Barcelona’s training and support for his medical treatment for growth hormone deficiency, he may have never even become a professional footballer, let alone a Ballon d’Or winner.
Making it as a professional footballer is hard enough, with even the most talented and hard-working individuals requiring some degree of luck. FIFA should be trying to help youngsters make it in the game, rather than making it more difficult for them to achieve their dreams of becoming professional footballers.
By Steve Price. Follow @kleaguefootball