Asian Football

The Cup Specialist Returns? Why Lee Lim Saeng Helming A Southeast Asian National Team Makes Sense

The recent AFF Championship Group Stage draw reminds us that the regional tournament is truly around the corner. My love for Singapore football blossomed during this competition with the thrill and spills it had to offer over the years.

While the global pandemic has demonstrated time and time again that everything is subject to change, it seems like either Singapore or Thailand are favourites to host the tournament, scheduled to take place between December 5, 2021, and January 1, 2022.

While football fans in Singapore will be gearing up for some mouth-watering clashes between five-time champions Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines, another familiar face may return to Singapore (should it be held here) – a figure that many remember fondly of.

That’s right, the title probably gave it away, but former Home United head coach Lee Lim Saeng could make a return to Singapore or potentially face former players he has managed. There have been news reports suggesting that Lee is heavily linked with the Thailand national team post.

Personally, I find it rather surprising it has taken this long for a Southeast Asian national team to approach the services of the former South Korean national team star.

Why? A combination of factors are at play here that make Lee a standout candidate for any Southeast Asian national team, and if the rumours linking the Thailand job are to be true, they certainly have good foresight.

South Korean Coaches are the New Fad In the Region

Vietnam’s recent feats in the international domain have led many to seek out the next Park Hang Seo. However, when Park first took the reins of Vietnam, there wasn’t much media hype other than that he was the assistant head coach to Guus Hiddink for the South Korea national football team at the 2002 World Cup.

Yet, Park has transformed Vietnamese football and brought it to unprecedented heights. Since arriving in 2017, Park has gone on to clinch the 2018 AFF Championship, notably led the team to a Quarter-Final place in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, and impressively helped Vietnam book its place in the third and final AFC round for World Cup Qualification. These are by no means easy feats, and consequently, Park’s direction has also seen Vietnam rise through the FIFA rankings. Placed at 112 when he first arrived, Vietnam now finds itself at the 95th position.

Naturally, other Southeast Asian states would want to emulate Vietnam’s heroics since they are a successful case study of how they can compete with Asia’s best and replace Thailand as Southeast Asia’s best-ranked nation. In this vein, Indonesia appointed former South Korea national team manager Shin Tae Yong. As a result, fans were treated to an intense rivalry between both head coaches as they clashed during the 2022 World Cup AFC Second Round Qualifiers.

Yet could there be another manager, Lee, for instance, to expand on the South Korean presence in the region? Well, of course. Lee would definitely instil the currently sought-after South Korean footballing philosophies. However, what makes Lee stand out from other South Korean candidates? In my opinion, there are plenty but I want to focus on a few.

Knowledge of Southeast Asia

Not many South Korean coaches have had stints in the region, and fewer have had as long as a stint as Lee. Spending five seasons in Singapore with Home United, Lee is familiar with both Singaporean and, through his experiences in the AFC Cup, Southeast Asian football. At Home United, Lee was forced to learn how to accommodate his tactics to the Southeast Asian strengths while also working on weaknesses.

Some have labelled him as being a strict disciplinarian that prioritized fitness and strong mental focus. Yet, it is precisely this point that makes him the perfect candidate in Southeast Asia. Fitness has been a thorn that has plagued many Southeast Asian national teams, including Singapore, and Lee’s appointment would ensure players are physically and mentally prepared to go beyond the 90 minutes.

A Cup Specialist & Experience Across Various Leagues

As you also probably figured from the title, Lee has done decently in the league, but cup football is his speciality. It is true that he has performed better at cups. With Home United, Lee is a two-time Singapore Cup winner, while with Suwon Samsung Blue Wings, he won the Korean FA Cup in 2019. Given the knockout-round structure of international football, Lee is a no brainer for national teams.

It isn’t just the fact that he won cups, but the fact he has been able to do so both in Singapore and Korea, which brings me to another point: Lee has managed in various countries. While most South Korean coaches remain in the Korean footballing system, Lee has spent years in Singapore (with Home United) and China (with Yanbian Funde and Tianjin Teda) before returning to the K League to helm Suwon Samsung Bluewings.

Often an overlooked point, but adapting to a new country is never easy.

However,  Lee’s vast experience outside of Korea has illustrated how he can quickly adapt to any new surroundings, which is vital for a Southeast Asian state where passionate fans expect immediate results.

More importantly, Lee has managed at multiple tiers and is better equipped to deal with various calibres of footballers. In most Southeast Asian states now, we have an amalgamation of players that play in the domestic, regional and European leagues. Lee’s experience in Singapore aids his ability to man-manage domestic players, while his experience in Korea and China allows him to man-manage national stalwarts. In addition, a national team like Thailand boasts players who currently ply their trade or have previously played in Thailand, the region, or Europe.

Shaping Defences & Converting Player’s Into New Positions

As a no-nonsense defender that turned out for South Korea in the 1998 World Cup, Lee knows a thing or two about defending and has a knack for identifying players who can flourish in the central defender position as he did. The Sirina Camara case study is by far the best example of what Lee can do for a player. 

“I was a Left back in France. When I first came to Singapore, I played as a left-winger. [Lee] told me that based on my vision and speed, I would become his centre back and then you can cover everybody [in defence]. At first, when he told me that he wanted me to play as a centre-back, I was questioning if I made the right choice but I really wanted to further my progress as a player under his guidance.”

Sirina Camara

Camara’s career took off after Lee personally coached the player and helped convert him into a centre-back from a left-back/left-winger role. As a result, Camara spent six seasons at Home United and was a rock in the heart of defence during his time with the protectors.

Another player that did well was Franklin Anzite, a name that is familiar for many Southeast Asian fans given he travelled the region and played in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Lee had a massive part to play in his routine selection for the Central African Republic as well.

“[Coach Lee] is very big [stature-wise]. You know, he played the World Cup in France in 1998. He also played as a centre-back and I played as a centre-back under him. I played at defensive midfield at first so he was the one who taught me so much about this position as centre-back. It was good for me. He was the first one to put me there in the [heart of defence]. And because of that, I played in the national team as a centre-back. So, thank you Coach Lee.”

Franklin Anzite

Coincidentally, the Thai national team have an issue with their central defender position. While Thailand has produced great full-backs, there is a significant lack of depth in the central defender roles. For instance, for the previous two years, except for Manuel Bihr, who usually occupies one spot, the other central defensive position seems to be a revolving door. Suphan Thongsong appears to be cementing his place in the team but more needs to be done. Hence, perhaps Lee’s appointment is the solution that the Thai national team needs.

The rest of Southeast Asia should be on Alert.

If not Thailand, as the rumours suggest, the rest of Southeast Asia should be ready to pounce when they can, as they would be missing out on a quality head coach that brings the exact things needed for any national setups’ footballing revolution.

Featured Image from Singapore Premier League

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