Son, Sonny, Sonshine, Sonaldo. Whatever you call him, in the year 2017 Son Heung-Min has been a baller, as in ball of fire, or more like he’s on fire. You know what, forget it, you get the idea. At the moment, he is THE Asian footballer of the year, and he’s got the numbers to prove it. But before we celebrate his rapidly accruing accolades, awards and records broken, it wouldn’t fully explain how the protagonist got to this point unless you delved into his remarkable journey and how he pulled back from the brink. From the caldron of disaster in the Round of 16 of the Brazil Summer Olympics, crashing out against Honduras, Son has used that painful moment to turn his stalled career around following a bumpy first season at Tottenham. At the time of his glitzy move to North London, Son’s career has been on a fast trajectory, rising quickly and making a name for himself at Hamburg, to scoring Champions League goals for Bayer Leverkusen. That he kept turning heads at Cha Bum-Kun’s former club, with his blazing pace, swashbuckling drives and scintillating goals scored invited comparisons to the legendary Korean player. 40 years prior, senior Cha’s pioneering move to Germany and the success he was able to carve out at Eintracht Frankfurt and Leverkusen paved the way for others like Son years later to continue seeking a higher level of international competition abroad. That same spirit translated into another challenging move for Son, to North London after Tottenham Hotspur’s Mauricio Pochettino came calling in 2015 (they had been tracking him from his Hamburg days).
In Son, the Argentinian manager saw a vital player that fit in his visionary new system, someone who could help in his audacious plans to take the Premier League by storm. After signing a deal to the tune of £22 million, breaking transfer records making Son the most expensive Asian player in history, Son would have to weather the aforementioned difficult first season in the unforgiving climate of the Premier League. Some early goals didn’t translate into consistency, and he was finding it tough to cement his position as a left wing/forward in Tottenham’s squad. Falling down further down the 1st team pecking order, rumors swirled over Son’s future at White Hart Lane. At season’s end, with Pochettino publicly furious (and quasi-privately singling out Son) at Spur’s late season capitulation to Newcastle, Son quietly requested to return to the Bundesliga, possibly at Wolfsburg.
The nadir was yet to come…
Summer break came and with it, a new opportunity at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics to rev up his bona fides, take Korea back to the medal stands and activate the all important career-unlocking potential that medal provides. Missing out for a chance to participate in 2012 to prepare with Hamburg, Korea’s Bronze in 2012 won that squad military exemption – allowing Ki Sung-Yeung, Koo Ja-Cheol and others an unshackled football career to stay in competitive football leagues, in Europe and elsewhere. It was Son that most KNT supporters looked to for good reason. Son had been the provider of death defying narrow victories and overtime goals to snatch points from the jaws of death for his country. Take World Cup qualifiers during the 2014 campaign or KNT redeeming post World Cup in Australia during the deep run into the Asian Cup at the beginning of 2015, Son was there with the electrifying moments that delivered. After a decent Group performance (which saw Son score against Germany and Fiji) that the magic had run out in the Round of 16 against Honduras; there would be no more resuscitating goals to save them. The last image the camera recorded as the broadcast faded to darkness was Son on the ground, sobbing and unconsolable.
Some footballers crumple at times like these. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but heartbreak at Rio seemed to touch a nerve and light a fire within the Chuncheon native. Pochettino for his part mulled over Son’s leave request and in the end, asked him to stay for the new season. In hindsight it was probably one of the best decisions Poch could have made, and for Son to accept the challenge and fight for his spot in the team.
The Return of the Son
Something people who have watched and tracked Son’s progress through the years know Son can be streaky. But when he’s hot, he’s blisteringly hot. The angry and in-form (with 4 Olympic games under his belt) Son returned to White Hart Lane and the Prem didn’t know what hit them until it was too late. His first game back with the season already in progress in early September, Son blasted in 2 superb goals and set up another as Spurs demolished Stoke in a 4-0 win. He followed that with another brace against Middlesbrough. Son scored again, defeating CSKA Moscow in the Champions League and Son found himself with 5 goals in 5 games. He was awarded Premier League Player of the month for his work in September. It was like Son was taking out all his frustration and anger on his opponents, and the punishment they received turned into Son’s transformative joy.
Fast Forward to 2017
All that was so 2016 ago, the goals, the handshake celebrations, the victories racking up. For Son’s part, he did his part to keep the team afloat when Kane was injured. After a blip in Son’s progress from November through early January, the results kept coming; March 12th 2017, his first hat trick against Millwall in the FA Cup, a last minute goal to beat Swansea in April, a brace at Watford, the go ahead goal to beat Burnley, winning April’s Premier League Player of the Month (the only player in the Prem to win the distinction twice in a season). May rolls around and this happened:
“…His brace against Leicester on 18 May meant Son’s goal-haul for the season would finish at 21 goals, surpassing Cha Bumkun’s 19 of 1985-86 and becoming the most prolific Asian goalscorer in Europe – a testament to Son’s innate ability to score crazy goals.” -Tim Lee on the Tavern’s 2016-2017 KPA Report Card
Son registered 21 goals across all competitions, including 14 Premier League goals. At season’s end, Spurs recorded their best showing in the Prem since 1961 with Kane, Alli, and Son all in double digits (first Spurs squad to feature 3 players scoring 20+ goals). Son had begun to cement his role in the starting XI, and the tag line that’s still running in newspapers across England: Son one of the most underrated players in a top European squad. Not as well noticed was Son discreetly tearing up Park Ji-Sung’s record as the highest Korean goalscorer in England, having already surpassed Ki Sung-Yeung’s and Lee Chung-Yong’s earlier that year.
The accolades keep on coming, Son won the 2017 AFC’s International Player of the Year last month, defined as the best Asian Player on the planet, the second time he’s been awarded the honor (previously won it from his stint at Bayer Leverkusen).
And just a few days ago, the KFA honored Son with this:
It’s Son’s third time winning this award, he’s now tied with Ki Sung-Yeung for the kudos.
The on-fire form hasn’t receded into the new fall season. In fact, arguably Son is still making tangible improvements to his game. Where he might have periods of time in his career where he drifts away, his touches and decision making fails him, and loss-of-confidence resulted in 2nd guessing dribbling gone awry, this year he’s becoming a more consistent and all around impactful player. (Man City drubbing aside) Son earned Man of the Matches for his performance at Champions League tie with Apoel and at home against Brighton and against Stoke. That last one in particular appeared to be the best game he has ever played in a Spurs uniform- Son directing traffic, scoring/involved in/ setting up 4 of 5 Spurs goals. He now has 8 goals across all competitions, including 3 Champions League goals, 5 in the Premier League, and has scored in 7 out of his last 8 appearances thus far. Spurs topped a Champions League group with BVB AND Real Madrid! While the title is all Man City’s, Spurs have European and PL top 4 to fight for. And we haven’t even entered the festive season yet. Dan Kilpatrick and Ben Pearce, both Spurs analysts on various media channels have both remarked Son is now essential to Poch’s composition. And save for wingback, Son has regained his versatility in roles, playing left, right, center with Kane, Son has been able to stretch his impact through various roles – which suits Poch’s style just right.
The biggest improvement Son Heung-min made this season at Spurs has been his ability to retain possession. (Source: Instagram @onevolante) pic.twitter.com/1P9mibbATx
— Steve Han (@RealSteveScores) December 22, 2017
But here’s the rub, Son’s spectacular club form didn’t quite carry over for his country as the KNT World Cup qualifying for the 2018 campaign struggled to get over the finish line, particularly during the last phase of qualifying. But last month, that narrative has quickly changed with Son scoring a brace against Colombia. Perhaps with new Spanish advisors to Shin Tae-Yong, the coaching staff may have finally figured out how to utilize Son more effectively on the national side. Here’s Son scoring on his Spurs teammate last month.
— HotspurGraphics (@HotspurGraphics) November 10, 2017
What is impressive and world class about Son isn’t simply what he’s done thus far. It’s the continual drive you see in him to keep pushing to improve himself. His touches, his pace, his decision making. It’s still evolving. This interview below conducted by ESPN Brazil last week sums up Son in a nutshell; despite all the accolades, he isn’t satisfied. He’s never satisfied. And for that reason alone, the Tavern eagerly awaits the evolution of the Son we have yet to see, evidenced by his disciplined commitment and dedication to his craft – with help from his father, friends and coaches, a never ending journey on the path of footballing excellence.
Last Call: while the footballing world is recognizing Son as a major player to reckon with, the last vestiges of the cold war will soon be on his mind as time is running out for Son to gain military exemption from Korean mandatory conscription with a tournament win. During a painful period in South Korean history where democracy was a distant dream, dictator General Park Chung-Hee instituted a rule in the 1970’s to enhance Korea’s soft diplomacy: military exemption could be granted as an incentive for Korean athletes to reach for Olympic medals or an Asian Gold medal (at the Asian Games). It’s a “Maze Runner/Hunger Games”esque dystopian scenario that still is in the books despite democracy’s ascension in the South. It’s also a major distraction for Son and other footballers who could be representing Korea as football ambassadors to the world.
For the record, Son opted to not join the hybrid KNT that won Bronze in 2012 London Olympics to prepare for his 2012-2013 Hamburg season. In hindsight, it sort of worked out for Son – that was his defining season for Hamburg that put him on the radar for BVB, Liverpool, and Spurs. It also put him on the path to Champions League competition with Bayer Leverkusen a year later. The next opportunity for military exemption with the 2015 Asian Games, the KFA and Son requested a short leave to compete in Incheon for his chance. The tournament didn’t fall on any recognizable FIFA break and Leverkusen wouldn’t release Son, arguing he would miss too many matches. For Leverkusen, it paid off with Son immediately scoring a brace against Copenhagen in the Champions League. For Son, it was another missed opportunity, though his form cemented his fast ascent in the Bundesliga.
One scenario: Son, should he get injured and unable to be selected OR if the KNT fails to win a Gold medal at the upcoming 2018 Asian Games (scheduled from August 18-September 2 in Hanoi), Son’s last chance (and Suk Hyun-Jun’s too) for military exemption will have expired and he will have to return to Korea to join Sangju Sangmu, Korea’s army football team. EXCEPT that he will technically not be eligible. Current rules states any player considered for Sangju (a stopgap to keep Korean competitive footballers in form throughout their military service time of 21 months) will have to have played domestically in the K-League at a minimum of 6 months. Son never played for FC Seoul – he had transferred directly to Hamburg’s academy when he was 16.
Due to the particulars of Son’s situation, he might find himself playing Champions League ball one day, and not playing football at all – possibly only an Army desk job awaits —for 21 months! That’s a distinct scenario that English media hasn’t deciphered quite yet, but when they do, panic in North London may ensue. Would negative publicity about the inflexibility and the head exploding implications of a world class footballer having to hang up his boots and the disgrace for Korean society to allow for that to happen force some kind of last minute legal clause to hypothetically allow Son join Sanju Sangmu? If so, K-League ball -perhaps even the 2nd division K-League Challenge (Sangju is perpetually between relegation and promotion) awaits Son – a slight upgrade to an already appalling situation. There are a number of hypothetical possibilities, but outside of one-time exemptions granted in the past but not available in the present – option are dwindling. It’s a tempting to speculate on what Korean lawmakers can do given the tense political climate on the peninsula. Deferment a la Israeli football deferment is a viable solution (see my In Bed With Maradona piece back in 2014 – glad IBWM won’t be going dark thanks to a new funding model), but it’s a touchy subject that might be too difficult to pass legislatively. I’ve been promising a full on piece to explore this idea – I might pitch that to IBWM, but until then, keep a lookout for it. And for now, cross your fingers. Son’s journey isn’t over yet.