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After memorable 2020, rising football star wants to stay grounded in new year

14:20 January 12, 2021

ULSAN, Jan. 12 (Yonhap) -- By many measures, Ulsan Hyundai FC youngster Won Du-jae had an unforgettable year in 2020, helping the country qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and leading his club to the continental club title.

But the 23-year-old insists he is determined not to let his success get to his head.

"I am just not going to worry about all the outside factors," Won said in an interview Monday before the K League 1 club's practice in Ulsan, about 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul. "I'll concentrate on things I am supposed to do."

Won Du-jae of Ulsan Hyundai FC poses next to the club's Asian Football Confederation Champions League trophy inside his clubhouse in Ulsan, 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul, in this photo provided by Ulsan on Jan. 12, 2021. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The versatile one did a lot of things in 2020. In January, he served as the rock in midfield as South Korea won the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in Thailand. Won was named the MVP of the competition -- a rare honor for a defensive midfielder who didn't put up any eye-popping offensive numbers.

After three years in the second division in Japan, Won made his K League debut with Ulsan in 2020. He appeared in 23 of the club's 27 matches, shuttling between midfield and defense.

Along the way, Won also made his senior international debut. After playing in exhibition matches against the under-23 squad in October, Won joined the big boys again for friendlies in Austria in November.

Ulsan finished runners-up to rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in both the K League 1 and the Korean FA Cup. But they salvaged their season by winning the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League in December.

Won began and ended 2020 with championships. He was also named the Young Player of the Year by the Korea Football Association last month.

In this file photo from Nov. 4, 2020, Won Du-jae of Ulsan Hyundai FC (R) battles Kim Bo-kyung of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors for the ball during the first leg of the Korean FA Cup final at Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium in Ulsan, 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

"I think last year passed by too quickly," Won said with a smile. "It was a great year for me. I was able to accomplish a lot of thing. But I also have things I need to improve on, and I can't afford to just sit back and feel content."

There's a lot on the plate for Won. Ulsan's season will begin on Feb. 1 at the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar. As the reigning AFC Champions League winners, Ulsan will represent Asia in a competition that will also feature other continental champions.

Then it'll be off to the K League 1 season and the AFC Champions League. The Tokyo Olympics, postponed by a year from 2020, will be in July.

In this file photo from Oct. 5, 2020, Paulo Bento (C), head coach of the South Korean men's national football team, speaks with Won Du-jae (L) through an interpreter during practice at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. (Yoonhap)

"I am not going to look too far down the road. I'll just prepare hard for our training camp and go from there," Won said. "If I can take it step by step, I should be able to achieve great results in the end."

Won will be playing for new head coach Hong Myung-bo, a South Korean football icon and a long-time national team captain. Won said he's looking forward to learning from the legend.

"Other clubs have bolstered their squads, and it's going to be a tough season," Won said. "And more than anything else, I want to beat Jeonbuk this year."

That'll go a long way toward ending Ulsan's K League title drought that stretched to 15 years in 2020. Ulsan fell to Jeonbuk in all three K League meetings last year, and had a draw and a loss in the two-legged FA Cup final.

In this AFP file photo from Dec. 19, 2020, Won Du-jae of Ulsan Hyundai FC (C) battles Mehdi Abdi of Persepolis FC for the ball during the final of the Asian Football Confederation Champions League at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Qatar. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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