Already rated at €80 million (£71m/$91m) by Valencia, South Korean teenager Lee Kang-in is on his way to becoming a big star for club and country.
Recent months have seen the 17-year-old left-footed forward or attacking midfielder step up towards the adult ranks, with a senior debut in La Liga – and lots more global attention – likely in 2018-19.
Incheon-born Lee had an early start in football celebrity, achieving national prominence in Korea after starring in reality TV football show Shoot Dori at the age of just six. Valencia brought him to Spain in 2011 to join the youth set-up at the Liga club’s Paterna facility. Lee settled quickly in his new country, impressing as Valencia’s Alevines [U-12] side reached the final of a prestigious youth tournament, scoring with a direct free-kick that helped defeat Borussia Dortmund to sow the seeds for international attention.
The seemingly laid-back kid moved seamlessly up through the age groups, making his debut for the Valencia Mestalla B team aged just 16 in December 2017. Eased into the adult set-up by coach Miguel Grau, he featured in a further 10 Segunda B (third tier) games last term, scoring his first senior level goal in a 2-0 win versus Sabadell. His impressive performances led Valencia first-team coach Marcelino Garcia Toral to regularly invite Lee to train with the senior squad through the final months of the campaign.
“He’s got ambition and talent,” said Grau. “It’s hard to find a player with talent that still works so hard but that’s Kang-in. Those of us that know him have no doubt that he’ll go all the way.”
Throughout this time Lee has also been progressing at international level, making his debut for the South Korea Under-18 team in 2017. Last May, he was fast-tracked into the Under-20 set up for the prestigious Toulon Tournament, where ex-La Liga stars Thierry Henry and James Rodriguez, and current Valencia frontman Kevin Gameiro, first came to global prominence. Although South Korea exited at the group stage, superb long-range goals against Scotland and Togo saw Lee named in the official team of the tournament despite being considerably younger than most opponents and team-mates. This brought further fame back in his home country, where many of his 60k Instagram followers live.
Growing excitement around such an emerging star led Valencia president Anil Murthy to offer Lee a senior contract in July 2018, including an eye-opening €80m release clause. Pre-season then saw Lee become the first Asian player to wear a Valencia shirt in a senior game, as he made his debut against Swiss Super League side Lausanne, and feature in warm-up matches versus European heavyweights PSV, Everton and Leicester. He went on to score in his very first senor game at Mestalla, a fine strike in a 3-0 victory over Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen in Valencia’s traditional ‘Trofeo Naranja’ curtain raiser.
Through the opening stages of 2018-19, Lee has mixed training with the seniors with representing the club’s youth sides. Left footed, with an eye for a pass and a nose for goal, Lee is best positioned as an attacking midfielder or second striker. These skills were on show when he made his UEFA Youth League debut in September, hitting the crossbar twice in a narrow defeat to Juventus.
With Marcelino having brought the likes of Carlos Soler and Ferran Torres, both homegrown talents, through into the first team, it’s perhaps only a matter of time before Lee makes his La Liga, Copa del Rey or Champions League bow.
Lee is already being celebrated in both Valencia and South Korea. La Liga fans worldwide will soon know his name too.