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Lee Kang-in: Meet South Korea's answer to David Silva

14:00 GMT+3 20/06/2019
Lee Kang-in NxGn
The 18-year-old has already been linked with a move to Real Madrid after making his mark in the Valencia first team last season

While the Under-20 World Cup threw up plenty of surprises, one of the biggest was South Korea finding themselves in the final against eventual winners, Ukraine. The Asian side had one player largely to thank for that success: Lee Kang-in.

Despite having only just turned 18 in February, Lee picked up the Golden Ball as the best player during the tournament in Poland, after netting score twice in the knockout stages, including a penalty to open the scoring in Saturday's final.

But it was his all-round play which impressed the most, causing opposition defences endless headaches with his quick feet and ability to feel comfortable playing anywhere in the attacking third of the pitch.

And while Lee begins to make his mark on the global game, his talents have been clear to those in his native Korea since he appeared as a six-year-old on television talent show 'Soccer Prodigy' in 2007.

The son of a taekwondo instructor father, Lee was able to illustrate his extraordinary athleticism as well as his enviable left foot.

"He absorbs knowledge like a sponge," said South Korea legend Yoo Sang-cheol at the time. "He is the ace of the team with excellent speed, shooting and defensive technique."

Four years later, Lee was spotted by Valencia and, along with both his parents and his two sisters, the then 10-year-old moved to the east coast of Spain. Three years of continuing to impress within the Liga outfit's academy structure and he signed a six-year contract to remain in the shadow of Mestalla until he reached maturity.

By the age of 16, Lee had developed at such a rate that he had begun to be included in Valencia's Under-20s side, though in most games he remained a level above both his team-mates and opponents.

His professional debut would not be far away as he was soon promoted to the Valencia Mestalla side, who play in the third tier of Spanish football.

Yet more eye-catching performances saw the club move quickly to tie Lee down to a new four-year contract, which included an €80 million (£71m/$89m) release clause.

The headlines that created meant that he could not be ignored by first-team coach Marcelino and, in October 2018, he made his Valencia debut in a 2-1 win over Ebro in the Copa del Rey. A

ppearances in La Liga and the Europa League followed, as well as further starts in the Copa for the eventual winners.

"He is willing to learn every day, regardless of whether he is in first or second-team training," said Valencia academy director Luis Vicente Mateo when speaking to Goal about Lee's potential in 2018. "He is a player with outstanding talent."

Having been named in Goal's NxGn list of the best 50 teenage footballers on the planet in March, the pressure will begin to mount on Lee to further his development for both club and country.

Already at Valencia he has been likened to David Silva, who, like Lee, was a diminutive left-footed creative midfielder that came through the club's academy before becoming the lynchpin of the first team.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the expectation on Lee following his exploits over the last month will only grow, and though Son Heung-min continues to draw the majority of the attention of the footballing public after playing a starring role in Tottenham's passage to the Champions League final, it will not be long until he is usurped in the public's consciousness by a player eight years his junior.

The potential for the pair to play together at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is mouthwatering, to say the least.

Whether Lee is still playing for Valencia by then is another question.

Despite his eyebrow-raising release clause, his performances in Poland have led to reports of interest from Real Madrid.

Los Blancos have already secured the services of one of Asia's most prodigious young talents in the shape of Takefusa Kubo, and combining him with Lee may well prove a dream scenario both on and off the pitch.

For now, though, Lee is taking his new-found attention in his stride.

On returning to his homeland following the Under-20 World Cup, he said: "The Golden Ball is a prize that all my team-mated received together."

Modest but super-talented, Lee has every asset required to become a global superstar.