Few players characterise a team’s development like Son Heung-min does for Tottenham Hotspur.
Arriving in North London in the summer of 2015, his time at the club bookmarks their golden period in recent years. Mauricio Pochettino had been at the helm for a year, and after a mixed 2014/15, brought the South Korean in as part of a squad overhaul. Son, alongside Kieran Trippier and Toby Alderweireld were signed that summer and came to epitomise Pochettino’s exciting young team.
Son has developed into a world class forward, yet to the people of South Korea he is even more than that. An inspiring national team captain, but also a character and figurehead with cultural significance and relevance. This is his story, with insight from South Korean football writer Steve Price.
Moving to Europe
Son’s footballing development took place in Europe as opposed to in his native South Korea. He left the FC Seoul academy aged sixteen for Germany, in itself garnering attention from South Koreans.
“He learned to play football from his father, a coach in Chuncheon. But really his development took off at Hamburg” says Price.
In joining Hamburg’s academy, Son was by no means the first, or an outlier, in making the intracontinental move. Three years later Lee Seung-woo would be signed by the Barcelona academy, and ultimately be denied the chance to play due to Barcelona’s transfer ban.
“Quite a few Koreans have moved to European teams at a young age. But once he started playing regularly for Hamburg it was clear he would make it to the top.”
His seventy eight games for Hamburg would reap twenty goals, mostly from the right of midfield as opposed to his now favoured left. Even at this tender age he demonstrated an eye-catching finishing technique, with a steely calm when one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
“Even after a couple of seasons, Son was their main man. Hamburg’s games were shown on Korean TV which just shows how highly he was thought of even them.”
In hitting twelve league goals in 2012/13, Son would catch the attentions of Bayer Leverkusen. So much so that they paid a then club record €10 million for him. Just months after arriving he would impart ruthless punishment upon his former side in scoring a hattrick in a 5-3 win over Hamburg.
Once again this game demonstrated many of the qualties now associated with the South Korean. Driving runs from deep, racing into the channels beyond the defence, and finishing with both feet inside the box.
He was becoming a complete forward, best utilised on the left of midfield so as to cut in and take efforts at goal. Equally he showed he could play in a strike partnership and stretch defences more directly. This is something he has perfected in tandem with Harry Kane at Tottenham.
“His two years at Leverkusen made it clear he would be Korea’s next top player after Park.” says Price. For twenty-two year old Son to be held in such regard, compared to the great Park Ji-sung who had played at Manchester United for seven years, is a heavy testament to the quality of his output at this young age.
After just two years in the North Rhine Westphalia region, an even bigger entity came swooping for his burgeoning talent. That of Tottenham Hotspur.
In signing for Pochettino’s Tottenham in 2015, Son became the most expensive Asian transfer in history. This was tangible proof of the expectation placed on him to be South Korea, and even Asia’s, best ever player.
“It’s not just a case of Spurs games being shown on TV, its more than that. There is a programme on nearly every day showing his best goals. He is in every commercial at half-time, everything from noodles to insurance.”
Son’s stature had exploded.
After arriving for £22 million, Son’s debut season was somewhat subdued, scoring only four league goals all season in a third placed finish. The biggest contribution would be scoring in the infamous ‘Battle of Stamford Bridge’ affair that would end their title hopes.
In the four completed seasons since, Son has started at least thirty league games every season and passed ten league goals in each. Only Harry Kane has scored more for the club in this time. Only four others have scored more for Spurs in the Premier League era.
“The fact that Son is a flair player, and seen as a top player within the team, has had a major impact on the global perception of Korean players. If you asked a Manchester United fan who their favourite player was, how many would say Park?” says Steve.
Is there a will for Son to take another step forward? To go to one of the game’s giants?
“People want to see him win trophies and accolades. Incidents like scoring four goals vs Southampton, winning goal of the season last year, are all news stories. Spurs made the Champions League Final in 2019 as well. Unless Spurs spend a few years in the doldrums, people won’t be pushing for him to move.”
Korea’s Chosen Son
Running parallel to his club career in Europe, Son has amassed eighty seven caps and twenty six goals. 2018 also saw South Korea win the Asian Games in Indonesia. Significant for it solidified Son’s deity status within his country, but also as it allowed his exemption from military service.
The South Koreans beat Iran, Uzbekistan and Vietnam on the way to the final, where they beat Japan 2-1 in extra time. Son only scored once in the tournament, and was facing away for the crucial moment of the tournament.
“Ironically he didn’t see the key moment of the tournament, and arguably his career, as he turned away when Hwang Hee-chan scored the winning penalty versus Uzbekistan.” recalls Steve. You can read his detailed view on that tournament here.
Alleviating the responsibility of military service, which would have been mandatory for the squad to complete had they not won the tournament, has seen a change in Son’s game says Steve.
“It is like his game has gone up a level since that tournament. As if he now thinks “I’ve been given a second chance, and I’ve got to make the most of it.””
Military service could well have seen him miss out on his peak years at Tottenham, so it is unsuprising to see him play with such joyful abandon post the 2018 Asian Games.
As a figurehead and leader, Son’s reputation speaks for itself.
“His ability commands a respect, and his own high standards help to push the national team on. Saying that, in being the overwhelming star player, it is a hard task for him as teams defend in low blocks and often double mark him. This is when his dead-ball skills really become important.”
“As other senior players have retired, and the squad has gotten younger, Son is very much a senior in terms of age too.”
More than an athlete
When a player comes along and changes perceptions of an international team, and even country, they elevate themselves culturally. The effect of Riyad Mahrez’ rise in Algeria for example. The South Korean adoration of Son has done very much the same.
“He is thought of so highly. The Korean Football Association recently gave a presentation on what makes a Korean footballer. They used Son’s image for this presentation.”
Whether he transitions into football administration is uncertain, given his relaxed and joyful manner on the pitch. If he did he would be joining a list of other prestigious South Koreans.
“Almost all of the 2002 South Korea squad have had prominent roles since they retired. “
Watching Son in the Premier League, and spearhead one of the best sides in the league in recent years, it is easy to forget that he is treading a path few of his nationality have trod. Other South Koreans have played for top teams, but arguable none have been as integral to their success as Son has to Spurs.
He is beloved to all he has played for. Both for his exciting talent but also for his attitude and dedication to the cause, all with a smile. Neither set of supporter (or compatriot) should forget the path he has taken to reach this level, nor take this most brilliant of player for granted.
Steve Price is a writer who specialises in South Korean football, and has written for Forbes and These Football Times. Thank you for his exceptional insight for this article.