There are some players that embody the K League, pictured throughout its existence constantly making and shaping its history. One such player, known throughout both Korea and Asia due to his performances for club and country, is Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors captain Lee Dong-gook. In the second instalment of our K League Legends series, Matthew Binns speaks to the striker about his long and illustrious K League career to date.

Nearly all K League supporters will have a memory of Lee Dong-gook, whether it is for or against their side. The league's all-time leading goalscorer has been plying most of his trade on these shores since his breakout season for Pohang Steelers back in 1998. The last eleven campaigns have seen him become an integral figure at reigning champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, being heavily involved in guiding them to all seven of their K League titles and their 2016 AFC Champions League triumph. Not only are his goalscoring exploits feared throughout the league, but also the continent as he remains the top goalscorer in AFC Champions League history. Lee Dong-gook can be easily classed as one of Korea's most historic players and therefore a perfect entry for this second instalment in this K League Legends series.

You started at Pohang Steelers making your professional debut in 1998 at the age of 19, scoring eleven goals across all competitions and winning the K League Young Player of the Year award. At the time, did it ever feel strange to you to be achieving so much early on?

"At that time, there weren’t too many cases of players going straight to the professional level. So, I thought I needed to work hard all the time and do better."

And you also made your debut for the Republic of Korea national team that same year, attending the 1998 World Cup in France. What was it like to be part of a World Cup squad so early in your career?

"I stepped onto that stage earlier that I expected. Since I was young, I decided to enjoy and learn rather than feel fear and pressure. I think that’s why I improved my play."

You’d go on to represent your country 105 times at senior level. What have been the best moments while wearing the South Korean shirt?

"As a national team player, every moment was the best and I always did my best. It would be hard to pick just one game. However, among the goals I scored for the national team, the most memorable was the successful volley in a friendly against Germany."

You made a loan move to Bundesliga side Werder Bremen in the year 2000, coming back briefly for military service with Gwangju before heading to Middlesbrough for two seasons. With many promising youth players in the K League who are hoping to move to Europe, do you ever offer them advice based on your experience there? What would you suggest to them?

"They shouldn’t be too impatient. I hope they challenge themselves when they are at their best. I want to say this as I wish I had gone to England when I was in my best condition."

After Middlesbrough, you returned briefly to Seongnam FC before joining Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2009. What was it that attracted you to join Jeonbuk?

"I was most touched by manager Choi Kang-hee’s belief in me. We met in person and he suggested that I should come to Jeonbuk."

For most of your time at Jeonbuk, you played for manager Choi Kang-hee who was integral in transforming the club into what it is today. What was he like to play for and how much of an influence did he have on your career?

"He showed faith in the player. Therefore I worked hard to repay that belief. In doing so, I became involved in the team and the team's performance began to improve. He is the manager who influenced me the most as a football player because we finally won the club's first league title in 2009 when I joined the team."

Former Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee's belief in his players was a key factor in bringing Lee Dong-gook to club. 

Your name has become associated with Jeonbuk during the eleven seasons you have played for them and you have been involved in most of the team's success. As a club, what is it that Jeonbuk do well that other K League sides cannot match?

"All our players are at their best. The players themselves work harder because they have that pride of being the best. There are also good facilities like the clubhouse, which helps to boost players' morale."

Last season saw new manager José Morais join the club, reinstating you as captain. How have things changed under his leadership?

"I think our Jeonbuk-like game was a little lacking. Fans will want us to run the game with more aggressive play."

Of the team’s new signings brought in during the window, who has impressed or surprised you so far?

"Both [Takahiro] Kunimoto and Cho Gue-seung are expected to do well. Kunimoto has already proven himself to be the best Asian quota player whereas Cho Gue-seung is a rookie with great spirit and activeness, which should add a lot to the team."

You’ve enjoyed a wealth of success during your playing career. Is their one particular moment in the K League that has stood out for you?

"Jeonbuk winning their first league title in 2009 was the most rewarding moment for me. That season I was the top scorer and it was also the first time I had won the league."

What is it that motivates you these days?

"My biggest motivation as a football player will always be my family. My family members give me the most strength and the power to play well."

Finally, If you could push a button and go back to when you first started, and relive it all exactly the same way, would you?

"I think I achieved a lot of things as a football player. If I were to go back to the beginning, I would still walk this current path."

Captained by Lee Dong-gook, Jeonbuk are crowned champions after a dramatic end to the 2019 season.

Honours & Statistics

1998 - 2007: Pohang Steelers

Asian Club Championship (1997-1998)

102 apps, 38 goals (132, 51)

2003 - 2005: Gwangju Sangmu (Military Draft)

46 apps, 12 goals (53, 15)

2008: Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma

10 apps, 2 goals (13, 2)

2009 - Present: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

K League 1 (2009, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019)
AFC Champions League (2016)

345 apps, 158 goals (441, 206)

1998 - 2017 Republic of Korea

105 apps, 33 goals

Individual Honours

K League Young Player of the Year (1996)
K League Best XI (2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015)
K League 1 Golden Boot (2009)
K League 1 MVP (2009, 2011, 2014, 2015)
K League FANtastic Player of the Year (2009, 2011, 2014, 2015)
AFC Champions League Golden Boot (2011)
AFC Champions League MVP (2011)

*EDITORIAL NOTE: The original answer regarding Jeonbuk's style of play, and reference to 'Dakgong', was misinterpreted. The answer has now been corrected as of 15th May, 2020.

Matthew Binns

Head of Editorial at K League United