Perfection is the aim for rising star Kim Min-jae
Dubai: He may be only 22 years of age, but a series of standout displays have made Korea Republic's Kim Min-jae one of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019's most talked-about players.
Speaking exclusively to the-AFC.com, the rising defensive star discussed the arrival of Son Heung-min, the valuable lessons of an Asian Games gold medal, and his lofty ambitions for the tournament ahead of his side's quarter-final clash with Bahrain.
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The Jeonbuk centre-back may have just two seasons of Korean top-flight football under his belt, but he has already established himself as a starter in head coach Paulo Bento's side, which has a perfect record, and didn't concede a goal in the group stage.
Having scored in consecutive matches against Kyrgyz Republic and China PR, Kim is also, as it stands, the team's equal leading scorer in the competition alongside Gamba Osaka marksman Hwang Ui-jo.
Media discussion about his club future has been near-constant throughout the competition, but Kim said he is more interested in clean sheets than broadsheets, revealing his ambitious objective of not conceding a single goal in the tournament.
"Yes, I scored, but I think the clean sheet is more meaningful for me, because as a defender, this is how I contribute to the team," he said.
"As a defender, I cannot make any mistakes. A clean sheet is very important. If we don't allow goals, we don't lose and it gives us the chance to win.
"Many people said we are the strongest team in Asia, so if we want to be the strongest, it means we don't allow any goals until the end, if it's possible. That's my challenge: to allow zero goals."
Korea Republic reached the final in Australia four years ago, losing in extra-time to the hosts, despite Son Heung-min's late heroics, to dash the nation's hopes of a first Asian title since 1960.
At that stage, Kim was a university student with only two national youth team caps to his name, but now he is in Dubai alongside the Tottenham Hotspur star, whose presence he believes will be vital in the matches ahead.
"(in 2015) I was at university, and I wasn't even at a club, so I never thought that I could play in that kind of big tournament. Really, I didn't expect I could be here at that time," he explained.
"After Son joined our team (against China PR) many defenders from our opponents marked him, and very intensely, so I think that means other players also get more chances and it has an overall good effect.
"Looking at this tournament, we need to score more goals. We didn't score many, and I expected more goals from the strikers."
With the Philippines, Kyrgyz Republic and China PR all successfully accounted for, Bahrain lie in wait in Korea Republic's quarter-final, and Kim is confident the good times will continue, provided they execute Bento's game-plan.
The towering defender is enjoying life in his first major international tournament after injury hampered his chances of selection for last year's FIFA World Cup in Russia.
While he is still learning the ropes on the big stage at senior level, he already has a gold medal from last year's Asian Games - an experience he believes provided the ideal preparation.
"I couldn't go to the World Cup, but I learned a lot from the Asian Games," he explained.
"There were so many people who focused on all of our matches - match by match - because the Games are very famous in Korea. Also, the tournament level of the Asian Games meant we couldn't have any mistakes, because one mistake can be the end.
"I learned how to play a tournament at the Asian Games. I do things in the Asian Cup, based on what I learned in the Asian Games."
"We have players with that experience, and other older players with great experience. When they are combined, we hope we can make another great result in the Asian Cup.
"We are very eager to win this tournament, and we know that if we become champions it can bring a lot to this team in the future of Korean football. After the Asian Games we have a lot of fans who are really interested in Korean football, and we want that fever to continue."
When reflecting on his newfound prominence in the football world, Kim is a picture of humility and professionalism - and a young footballer focused solely on the task at his feet.
"Well, you could say I have become more known, but it's certainly not worldwide," he said. "This is a big tournament, and even though I'm a defender I got two goals, so I guess that's why many people started to know my name.
"But this is my first major event, so I really want to be champion at my first big tournament as a player. I really want to concentrate on the tournament and not other things."
Whatever happens in his, and his country's more immediate future, Kim Min-jae appears set to become a familiar face at the AFC Asian Cup for many editions to come.
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