SEOUL, June 20 (Yonhap) -- During South Korea's improbable run to the final at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland, midfielder Lee Kang-in played so well that he exceeded the expectations of his assistant coach, Gong Oh-kyun.
It got to a point where Gong decided his 18-year-old pupil is better than Takefusa Kubo, another 18-year-old youngster they call the "Japanese Messi."
"When I saw Kubo in person two years ago (as a coach at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea), I thought he was a really good player," Gong said at a press conference Wednesday at the Korea Football Association House in Seoul. "I hadn't watched Kang-in play before this tournament, and I used to think Kubo was better. But as the tournament progressed, I began to think Kang-in is a better player. I was surprised, and he played better than I thought he would."
Lee scored two goals and assisted on four others en route to earning the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player, even though South Korea lost to Ukraine 3-1 in the final.
Kubo represented Japan at the 2017 U-20 World Cup before his 16th birthday. He missed this year's tournament while playing with Japan's senior national team at Copa America. He left his Japanese club FC Tokyo to sign with Real Madrid earlier this month and will join their reserve team for the 2019-2020 season.
Lee is also playing in Spain, having first joined Valencia CF's youth academy in 2011. He made his big club debut last season.
S. Korean IOC members hopeful DMZ meeting will offer breakthrough for sports cooperation
Defending champs in S. Korean baseball threaten to run away with pennant
2 S. Korean clubs eye trip to quarterfinals at AFC Champions League
S. Korea football coach willing to look past statistics when selecting players
Tough road ahead for Seoul in joint Olympic bid with N. Korea