It’s only a little more than a few words, but I hope you enjoy anyway. Also hope everyone is having an amazing holiday season! Please feel free to leave a New Year’s wish or two for the KNT or any Korean player, for that matter, in the comments. All viewpoints expressed in the article are mine and mine only.
2019: the year of Son Heung-min. When KNT fans look back at the 27-year-old’s career, we’ll see what an incredible period of time these last two, three seasons have been for him. Along with a Champions League final appearance and multiple wonder goals, SHM now has a collection of year-end awards and accolades to show for his recent performances. Undoubtedly, the winger is now considered a member of the upper echelon of players in world football.
In this month alone, SHM has been recognized as “KFA Korea Republic Male Player of the Year”, “AFC Asian International Player of the Year” and “Best Footballer in Asia”. He hasn’t been confined to just regional or continental recognition either. Last month, ESPN FC listed SHM as the fifth best winger in the world in a class topped by his Premier League peers, Sadio Mané and Raheem Sterling. The Guardian reaffirmed his “world class” status, placing him 19th this year in their annual list of “The 100 best male footballers in the world”.
Ballon d’Or voters might have placed upon SHM the greatest honor of all. He was recognized as one of thirty nominees to be designated as the best footballer in the world this year. SHM was the sole Asian player in the list, strengthening his status as a global cultural icon. In the grand scheme of things, it would be no big deal to determine that Korea’s best footballer is hitting his prime. However, the red card incident last Sunday shows the Chuncheon native still has room for improvement.
Down by two goals to Chelsea at half-time, Spurs were quickly losing their grip on a coveted fourth place position in the Premier League. It all took a turn for the worse for Tottenham in the 60th minute. In an attempt to control a long ball, SHM clashed with Antonio Rüdiger and dropped down to the ground in response to the contact. In frustration, SHM sneakily lifted his left boot into Rüdiger’s ribs, prompting Rüdiger to dramatically fall to the turf with arms over his lower body.
Then, a minute later, SHM was on his knees in despair after a VAR decision had him sent off with a red card for his conduct against Rüdiger. The incident dissipated any chance that Spurs had of defeating Chelsea that night, allowing the gap between the Blues and their London rivals to widen to six points. It was also the third time that SHM had been issued a red card this year. Each incident stemmed from his tendency to retaliate emotionally against perceived in-game slights.
Spurs manager Jose Mourinho outspokenly deflected the idea that SHM had caused a problem, instead assigning blame for the incident on Rüdiger. After the match, he insisted that Rüdiger had overreacted to SHM’s nudging, sarcastically wishing him recovery for his “broken ribs.” Mourinho had doubled down on his comments as late as Wednesday, claiming that Rüdiger’s reaction was okay in other countries but uncalled for in the Premier League. The English Football Association would ultimately reject Spurs’ appeal for SHM’s three-match ban.
However, it was not the incident itself, but rather what happened after it that would cause controversy. Shortly after SHM had left the pitch, Rüdiger had heard “monkey noises” coming from the stands, alerting the referee in the process. Play was momentarily stopped, and an announcement denouncing racism was played from loudspeakers in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. An investigation into the incident was called upon by Spurs and the English FA; no individual has yet to be attributed to the disruption.
Instead, police arrested one Chelsea fan for a racially aggravated public order offense against SHM. Although SHM did not hear any of the verbal abuse, other Chelsea fans had reported the incident to the authorities. Racism has become a hot topic issue in the global football community over the last few years, especially in England. Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen publicly condemned those supposedly perpetrating racial abuse against Rüdiger, referring to them as “minority idiots.”
As 2019 comes to a close, I think KNT fans can come together on two points of agreement. First of all, SHM cannot continue to let his emotions get the best of him, especially in the most crucial moments of the match. More importantly, racist incidents in football are shameful and fans and players need to unite together to stamp out these incidents.
In terms of SHM’s emotions, remember that red card against Bournemouth last May? It was totally avoidable and Spurs had a definite chance of winning the match to gain a more comfortable position as a top four in the Premier League table.
Yet, despite the favorable predicament, SHM felt the need to retaliate harshly to what he perceived as an in-game slight. He would leave his team vulnerable, and they would end up losing the late-season away match 1-0. By the end of the season, Tottenham had squeaked by with UCL qualification, finishing just one point above arch rivals Arsenal. This is just one example amongst a few in which SHM’s non-football actions have had a negative impact on his club’s ability to win.
He’s now been gone for two matches and won’t return to Spurs until January 5 for a face-off against Middlesborough in the FA Cup. A player as consequential as SHM has the ability to provide his club with the extra boost needed to get to a prospective UEFA Champions League final. However, when such a player is unavailable, it could cost a club its chance at even playing in the Champions League.
As we enter a new year, let’s hope that SHM can return back to Spurs refreshed and with the right mindset. Despite the three-game roadblock, Son is still on-track to surpass his season-high of 21 goals in all club competitions (2016-2017). So far this season, the 27-year-old has bagged 10 goals. He’s also notched seven assists in the Premier League this season, enough for the third most in the league. Let’s just hope we never have to see another “Rüdiger” incident because it could really cost SHM and his club in a future instance.
The bigger point out of this incident is that racism in football needs to die. As a football fan, I used to think the football community was generally above racist behavior due to the highly global nature of the sport. However, over the last few years, many instances of racial abuse perpetrated by football fans all over the world have challenged my initial belief. As noted by some figures in sports media such as Gary Neville, what’s happening around the pitch is reflective of what’s happening in our society.
This is really about more than football. This recent rise of racial abuse in football stadiums coincides with the rise of nationalistic attitudes around the world. Those who harbor nativist sentiments are now emboldened by current political and cultural developments to vocalize anxieties regarding racial and national identity. Although we have a tendency to dissociate politics from sports, the truth is that the two are highly intertwined. As long as human beings are behind the games we love, nothing will change that.
Fortunately, football clubs are doing the right thing in emphasizing a zero-tolerance policy against those that choose to publicly engage in bigotry. Clubs like Tottenham Hotspur do well on their part by imposing lifetime bans against “fans” who commit such egregious acts of misconduct. Fans play a major part in the fight against football’s racism problem as well. The Chelsea fans who reported racial abuse against SHM prove that fans have the ability to prioritize the humanity of a stranger over senseless tribalism.
Now the pressure should be on leagues throughout the world to implement hardline policies against racism. Some have suggested point deductions for clubs with fan bases that repeat violations regarding racial abuse against players or other fans in the stadium. Others, like ESPN FC commentator Craig Burley, have called on players to band together and abandon matches when players are subject to racial abuse. The latter suggestion is powerful because it forces fans to directly face a zero-tolerance stance against racism in football. Simply put, if fans are resorting to racist taunts against players, the players have every right to walk off and deny them the opportunity to watch the match live.
As we approach a new decade, we can learn to appreciate one of the greatest aspects of football, soccer or whatever you call the sport: its ability to bring people together. Without its ability to transcend labels like race and nationality, we wouldn’t be here to talk about SHM’s global success today. For that reason alone, I think everyone reading this can agree to put a knife into the underbelly of racism in football. And as long as people continue to rail against injustice, I have full faith that racism in football can be shamed out of existence.