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PSG's Lee Kang-in makes national squad despite Asian Cup dispute

March 11, 2024 - 14:30 By Yoon Min-sik
Son Heung-min (left) and Lee Kang-in after South Korea's 2-0 loss to Jordan in the semifinal match at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar on Feb. 6, 2024. (Yonhap)

South Korean men's national soccer team head coach Hwang Sun-hong announced his 23-man squad Monday, which included Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Lee Kang-in who fell from favor with the public for his recent scuffle with team captain Son Heung-min.

The interim coach for the team acknowledged the public's concern over Lee, and said addressing the issue could provide a chance to strengthen team chemistry. "I've talked to both players, and resolving (such conflict) can bring (the team) closer together. What happened on the field should be resolved on the field," the 55-year-old said in a press conference at the Korea Football Association House in Seoul.

South Korea is set to play Thailand twice later in the month for their Group C matches in the Asian qualifying tests for the 2026 World Cup. They will host Thailand at 8 p.m. on March 21 at Seoul World Cup Stadium, before heading to Bangkok for a March 26 match at 9:30 p.m.

The national team already has two wins against Singapore and China in the second round, and needs to be in the top two out of four teams in the group to advance to the next round of qualifiers. There are nine groups of four in the second round.

Hwang Sun-hong, the interim head coach of the South Korean men's national soccer team, announces the 23-man squad for the upcoming FIFA World Cup qualifying matches against Thailand, in a press conference at the Korea Football Association House in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

The fans and the national team are hoping the team could rebound from the bitter memory of the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup in Qatar last month, which entailed more than their 2-0 loss in the semifinals to Jordan.

On coattails of the defeat, it was reported that 23-year-old Lee and 31-year-old Son -- arguably two of the strongest players in the tournament -- had gotten into an argument over Lee and a younger teammate's insistence to play ping pong the day before the semifinals match. After an altercation of an unspecified kind, Son ended up with a dislocated finger and Lee with public fury directed at him over what was thought to be a mutiny against the team captain.

The public scrutiny continued until Lee visited Son in London to apologize to him in person about a week later, although the South Korean star was not in the clear just yet. Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, one of the first public figures to speak against Lee on record, said Sunday that the PSG star should no longer be on the national team.

Coach Hwang said that he did not think the Lee-Son scuffle was just between the two of them. "I think it's an issue involving the entire squad, the coaching staff, supporting staff, and every member of the team. We need to take responsibility," he said, offering his apology to fans disappointed by the ordeal.

This photo posted on official Instagram page of Son Heung-min shows Son (left) and Lee Kang-in posing for a photo. (Son Heung-min's Instagram page)

Other members of the team included expected picks like Son, who scored in each of the past two matches for Tottenham Hotspur, and Kim Min-jae, the bruising center back for Bayern Munich and the defensive anchor for the national team.

Three players of South Korea's division 1 K-League made the team for the first time, including Joo Min-kyu who became a first-time member at the age of 33. The two-time scoring champion of 2021 and 2023 is one of the most prolific scorers in the league, earning a nod from Hwang, who was the top Korean goal-getter during his playing career.

One player who did not make the team despite high expectations from fans was Lee Seung-woo of Suwon FC, who has not made the national team since 2019.

The complete list of the men's national squad is as follows: Cho Geu-sung and Joo Min-kyu at forward; Son Hueng-min, Lee Kang-in, Lee Jae-sung, Hong Hyun-seok, Hwang In-beom, Jeong Woo-yeong, Jeong Ho-yeon, Park Jin-seob, Um Won-sang, Paik Seung-ho at midfield; Kim Young-gwon, Lee Myung-jae, Seol Young-woo, Kim Min-jae, Kwon Kyung-won, Kim Jin-su, Cho Yu-min, Kim Moon-hwan as defenders; Jo Hyeon-woo, Song Bum-keun and Lee Chang-eun as goalkeepers.