A long way from home, Lee Young-pyo retires in MLS

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP)

With chants of `YP Lee, YP Lee' reverberating around the stadium and South Korean flags and banners fluttering in the stands, Lee Young-pyo left the field after his last professional game to a standing ovation from 21,000 fans and hugs from teammates and coaches.

It was a fitting tribute for one of the stars of South Korea's unlikely run to the 2002 World Cup semifinals, particularly considering it was such a long way from home.

Lee's last game was for the Vancouver Whitecaps against the Colorado Rapids in Canada, in the last round of Major League Soccer's regular season. He joined the MLS club two years ago.

And while he may not be able to match the fame or the glory collected by fellow Asian stars Park Ji-sung and Shinji Kagawa - Manchester United players past and present - the 36 year-old Lee has been one of the continent's great football ambassadors in a career that has spanned more than 350 club games and 127 for his national team, a record for an outfield player in South Korea.

Lee's long and impressive career took him from the suburbs of Seoul to three World Cups, some of Europe's biggest clubs and even to Saudi Arabia in 2009. Fans of Al Hilal in Riyadh gave him the nickname ''our Zanetti,'' after the legendary Argentine and Inter Milan left-back. In his first MLS season with Vancouver in 2012, he was voted the club's player of the year.

''Lee has had a fantastic influence on our club over the past two years,'' Vancouver president Bob Lenarduzzi told The Associated Press. ''Not only has he been an exceptional player for us on the field - playing in 65 of a possible 68 MLS games, and starting 63 of those - but he's also been an incredible presence off the field.

''His leadership and experience has been very valuable to our team, especially for our younger players. He is a true professional.''

After winning the domestic K-League title in 2000 with Anyang Cheetahs, and helping the team to the final of the Asian Club Championship in 2002, Lee was called up by coach Guus Hiddink for the national squad for a World Cup that was being co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.

By the end of the World Cup, Lee had established himself as Asia's best fullback and was soon taken to PSV Eindhoven by Hiddink, along with Park Ji-sung. Lee won two Dutch titles and starred in PSV's run to the last four of the UEFA Champions League in 2005.

Lee followed that with three seasons with Tottenham Hotspur, helping the popular London club win the League Cup, and then moved to Borussia Dortmund in Germany. That helped to cement his reputation as one of Asia's leading football exports.

His retirement game, a 3-0 win over Colorado Rapids, made headlines in South Korean newspapers, portal sites and television news with a focus on the scenes from Vancouver.

''It is good that he has made a big impact with Vancouver and Lee deserves to be known as an icon of Korea and Asian football,'' Park Yong-soo, head of the Korea Football Association's International Department, said. ''He has always made a good impression on the field and off it, too, and he is a perfect role model for young players.

''He was a hero of the 2002 World Cup and continued to play well for the national team for many years. We still have not replaced him.''

Lee will keep up his association with football and the MLS after opting to remain at Vancouver to study sports marketing.

''He will continue to stay very closely connected with Vancouver Whitecaps FC as he studies business and learns about our club's operations,'' Lenarduzzi said. ''I'm certain Lee will excel in the next chapter of his life and we look forward to working with him.''

There is speculation in South Korea that Lee will return home in the future to use what he has learned abroad to help revitalize the K-League. South Korea has the oldest professional league in Asia, but recently the K-League has had its struggles. Park, of the KFA's international department, believes that Lee still has a big part to play in the country's football future.

''In Korean football administration, we really need players who also have knowledge and experience of marketing and operations and how the sport works,'' Park said. ''In every aspect, he is a leader and a role model for others to follow.''

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