COVER STORY: Son Heung-min

Thursday, October 5, 2017

After a record-breaking 2016-17 in England’s Premier League, Asia’s most expensive player Son Heung-min helped Korea Republic qualify for their ninth successive FIFA World Cup. He now has set his sights on becoming a hero for the East Asian nation.


Around 40 minutes’ drive from the hustle and bustle of downtown Seoul lies Paju National Football Center, a modest training complex situated amid tranquil, leafy surroundings where Korea Republic undergo their preparations for home games.


Adjacent to the main pitch, the players congregate inside a building which, at first glance, doesn’t appear particularly striking. However, its most significant feature – a wall decked out with team photos of theTaeguk Warriors sides that have qualified for the FIFA World Cup over the years – offers a strong reminder to the current generation of what is expected of them.


Korea Republic have appeared at nine tournaments in total, the first being in 1954, and have advanced to every one since 1986. It is an impressive record that is unrivalled in Asia.


Cha Bum-kun, Hong Myung-bo and Park Ji-sung are just three of the legends that appear in the various team lineups, the latter two being part of the most successful Korea Republic side ever after reaching the World Cup semi-finals on home soil in 2002. It is they who the current team would so dearly like to emulate.


The most recent picture, from 2014, features the nation’s biggest hope, Son Heung-min, who, at 21, was the youngest player in the Korea Republic squad in Brazil. Then at Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen, the forward played in all three of his country’s games, scoring against Algeria, but the East Asians were eliminated after picking up just a solitary point.


In truth it was a disappointing World Cup given that four years earlier, in South Africa, the national side had reached the knockout stage for the first time outside their own country.


But for Son, who had left his homeland to join Hamburg’s youth academy at just 16 years of age in 2008, it was another huge step in his development after having already appeared in the UEFA Champions League earlier in the season.


“I think [the benefits of moving abroad at a young age] is a very important issue,” said Son, sat in front of the ‘Wall of Fame’ following a training session ahead of August’s FIFA World Cup qualifier with the Islamic Republic of Iran.


“In 2014, I was the youngest player and I already had experience before the World Cup by playing in the [UEFA] Champions League. So I think it was very important for me to play in Europe and learn before the big competitions.


“Playing in leagues such as the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga or Ligue 1 in France can give you good experience for these tournaments.”


Experience is something Son already has in abundance, after leaving all he knew behind and heading to Europe in his teenage years. At 19, he was named in Korea Republic’s squad for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar, where he scored his first goal for the East Asians in a 4-1 group stage win over India.


The Taeguk Warriors would ultimately lose on penalties to eventual winners Japan in the semi-finals, but for Son it was the start of an international career that has already yielded nearly 60 caps and 17 goals.


Impressive performances after breaking into the Hamburg first team as a teenager, meanwhile, convinced Bayer Leverkusen to break their transfer record in 2013 by luring the forward to western Germany.


Son helped his new side reach the UEFA Champions League knockout phase in consecutive seasons, scoring in wins over Benfica and Zenit Saint Petersburg in 2014, as the Chuncheon native fitted seamlessly into the Leverkusen lineup.


Heartbreak for the national team followed at the beginning of 2015 when, after the forward scored an injury-time equaliser against hosts Australia in the AFC Asian Cup final, the Socceroos ran out 2-1 winners in extra time to mean Korea Republic’s long wait for the continental title – which stretches back to 1960 – continued.


But Son’s growing reputation had attracted the attention of Tottenham Hotspur who, already boasting a side brimming with young talent, parted with 30 million euros to bring him to north London.


Now 23, Son became the second Korean to represent Spurs – after Lee Young-pyo – but, more significantly, had just been made the most expensive Asian player in history. With the global spotlight now on the forward more than ever, would the pressure of the price tag affect him like it had so many that had gone before?


“No, no, [the pressure] is something I enjoy,” insisted Son.


“You maybe change [teams] two or three times in your career so it’s good to have a record like this. I can tell people in 20 or 30 years’ time that I moved from Bayer Leverkusen to Tottenham for 30 million euros – I can say this once I’ve finished my career.


“I played in Germany for a long time, five years professionally, so I think the timing of the move to Tottenham was fantastic and I think I have made big steps forward.”


The faster pace of life in the English Premier League offered Son new challenges, while the Korean international also had injuries to contend with during a first season in which, although was far from disappointing, he was unable to produce his best form.


“There are many differences,” he admitted. “In England it’s more physical and the teams play much more attacking football.


“It’s quicker, whereas in Germany it’s more tactical and it’s not like every attack has to end in a goal, sometimes you can wait and just keep possession.


“In the first year I didn’t show my best performances because of the injury, but in the second year I showed how good I am and how much I enjoy the Premier League.”


That is no understatement. Often deployed in an exciting attacking quartet that included Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, Son excelled in a team that finished as runners-up in the league. On a personal level, records continued to tumble.


In September 2016, the forward became the first Asian to win the Premier League’s Player of the Month award, before claiming it again in April to become the only player to take the prize more than once in the season.


Perhaps more significantly, though, was the fact that Son managed to break Cha Bum-kun’s 31-year record of the most goals scored by a Korean player in a European top-flight league.


Arguably Korea Republic’s greatest-ever player, Cha netted 19 times for Bayer Leverkusen in the 1985-86 season, but Son was to exceed that total by finishing on 21 goals in all competitions.


“I was a bit nervous when I was on 19 goals, the same number as Cha Bum-kun, because I wanted to break the record,” admitted Son.


“Then as soon as I scored the two goals against Leicester it was a big relief and I was really, really happy because this was more than 30 years ago.


“I can admit that I was proud of myself because to make history is not an easy thing to do. It was always my dream to get more goals [than Cha] and every season I want to have a better season than my last one.”


It took just a few weeks of the current campaign for Son to get off the mark once more, when he scored the opener in Tottenham’s 3-1 UEFA Champions League victory over German giants Borussia Dortmund – a side he regularly found the back of the net against during his time in Germany.


Lavish off-season spending by other teams in the English league is expected to see the country’s richest clubs put in a strong challenge for the title this year, while Spurs also must contend with adapting to a temporary new home, Wembley, while work on their new stadium is being completed.


But, although the current campaign promises to be even tougher than Son’s first two in London, the forward remains upbeat about the team’s prospects


“It’s a great team, we’re young and everyone is hungry,” said the forward.


“Everyone has good quality and I enjoy going to training with them every day. I learn things from them and they learn things from me.


“Last season the team was really great. We came so close to winning the title. I enjoyed it as well, every game we went on the pitch to show how good we are and how good I am. I enjoyed last season really much.


“This makes me really happy and this is what I wanted when I moved to Tottenham. I wanted to make one or two more big steps and I’m on the way to making it.”


Back on the international scene, there is only one man the Korea Republic fans will look towards to fire them beyond the group stage for a third time come the end of the season, after, with some difficulty, the Taeguk Warriors did secure a ninth successive appearance at the tournament.


After enduring an inconsistent qualifying campaign, German coach Uli Stielike was relieved of his duties and replaced by former Korean international Shin Tae-yong for their final two matches.


The East Asians would draw their penultimate game with Iran to leave their qualification hopes hanging in the balance ahead of their final-day meeting with Uzbekistan in Tashkent, where only a win would guarantee progression.


Son struck the post in the first half of a game that saw the Koreans hit the woodwork three times before it ultimately also finished goalless. However, with Syria playing out a 2-2 draw with Iran, the point was enough to see Korea join the Iranians, Japan and Saudi Arabia as the four confirmed Asian teams for Russia next year.


“Qualifying nine times in a row can give us confidence because that is not an easy thing to do,” reflected Son after the game in Tashkent.


“We are happy because we have qualified but now we must look forward. Next year is very important, it is the World Cup so we have to work really hard with the new manager to see what happens.”


Despite playing his entire senior career outside his native Korea Republic, it is clear home is where the heart is for Son, and the ambition to drive the team forward over the coming months is evident.


It was more relief than joy etched on his face following the point in Uzbekistan and there is little doubt there is plenty work to be done ahead of the FIFA World Cup.


Not least will be rectifying a poor away record that saw three defeats and two draws from five games over a campaign in which progression was almost entirely down to a near perfect home record.


“I think we maybe feel the pressure more when we go away from home and we don’t play with the same confidence,” explained Son, who missed the away defeat to China and the scoreless stalemate with Syria in Malaysia.


“Maybe we’re a bit scared, we try but we’re not at 100 percent.”


Unfazed by being the most expensive Asian player in history and with a record-breaking season already behind him, fear is not a word that can be used to describe Son.


Indeed, having achieved so much by such a young age, it is hardly surprising that he sets the bar high when it comes to his personal aims with the national team.


“I want to be a hero in South Korea, of course this is my dream,” admitted Son.


“I want to be known as someone who helps his teammates, the game-changer. I hope I can make big steps and I’m looking forward to a positive future.


“It’s not easy leaving South Korea at 16 to go to Germany. Of course, I’m still young and I want to learn more – every game, every day. This is my goal and I want to see where I can get to when I’m 27, 30, 35.”


Having successfully navigated the Road to Russia, Shin will surely use the months ahead to work on improving a side that laboured to qualification yet still boasts plenty of talent within its ranks.


Son may be the biggest star, but Germany-based Koo Ja-cheol and captain Ki Sung-yueng, who plies his trade with Swansea City in the English Premier League, offer experience and quality in the centre of the park.


Young attacking players such as Hwang Hee-chan and Kwon Chang-hoon – based in Austria and France respectively – provide enthusiasm and dynamism up front, and will aim to develop further over the course of the season.


The squad, rightly, cannot yet be compared to the ‘Class of 2002’, but, due to the globalisation of the game, already has far more international experience than the team that started the World Cup 15 years ago.


Should they find the right balance in time for the next summer’s competition, then Son may well hear his name mentioned in the same breath as the legends that evoke so many fond memories in Korean football – and realise his dream of being a hero in his homeland.