We should be talking about Korea in the upcoming Women’s World Cup in France, or Korea about to face off against Argentina in the pivotal and last U20 World Cup Group F match to determine their fate in advancing to the knockout stages (kickoff 2:30pm US EST US TV: FS2). Instead I get to muse quickly about Son Heung-min in this moment in football history that he’s carving out in real time approaching countdown to the final 24 hours before kickoff of the Champions League finals. Tottenham versus Liverpool; Saturday 3pm US EST/ Sunday 4am Korea time. It took two miracles, one at Anfield and one in Amsterdam for these Premier League clubs to get distance from Barcelona and Ajax respectively to get here.
For Son, his 4 Champions League goals in the knock-out stages including 3 against Manchester City in the Quarterfinals were crucial pieces of Spur’s amazing adventure to arriving in Madrid on Saturday. First time for Tottenham, and to think they are 90 minutes from being crowned European champions – it’s an incredible surprise for their supporters, along with frankly the rest of the footballing world.
Son has had another incredible year – one that started with notching a stoppage time goal against Germany in the World Cup, then to harrowing nail-biting moments during the Asian Games gold match to beat Japan and earn military deferment (his last chance at just the right moment to extend his career in Europe) and then battling fatigue between long distance traveling to and from tournaments including a failed bid in the Asian Cup in January. YET somehow he managed to knock in 20 goals across all competitions for his club and win Goal of the Year and Player of the Year for Spurs. Did I miss anything?
For another time, there will be apt criticism directed at Paulo Bento, Korea’s manager for calling up Son after the Champions League (what more can we learn and why fatigue further an already overloaded player?). For now, this is a moment to reflect and soak in the significance of having only the second Korean player in a Champions League final. Many in the footballing world might consider this trophy to be a bigger deal than the Coupe de Monde – as sacrilegious as that might sound. This is THE trophy that any World Class player would desire.
Yours truly is on the run, but for the moment, I’ll let these twitter postings speak for themselves.
Win or lose, Son has a chance to change the destiny of not only his club and his own legacy, but also for the course of Asian football. Should Son score and help his side clinch the European title, he will be the first Korean to win the Champions League trophy – something that Park Ji-sung was unable to do against a dominant Barcelona side in 2011’s final – more on that in a moment. The significance of this potential is not lost on a number of writers across the world. Paul Williams interviewed Seol Ki-hyun and Lee Young-pyo about what it would mean for Son to win on Saturday.
Seol made history by being the first Korean to score a Champions League goal for Anderlecht in the early aughts. Lee Young-pyo was part of a successful 2nd wave generation of Koreans plying the trade in Europe, along with Park Ji-sung made the leap to Europe – swept up by Korea’s manager Guus Hiddink after the swashbuckling 2002 semifinal World Cup run in Korea/Japan. Hiddink’s next job was with PSV Eindhoven and he took the pair with him to the Netherlands. They would see each other often despite moving to other clubs: Lee Young-pyo became a Tottenham defender, clashing with his compatriot Park Ji-sung over at Man U. It was there that I’ll simply add that my late sojourn into Korean football kind of re-awakened again after witnessing the 2002 World Cup.
By twist of fate I wound up being enthralled by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona machine and by 2011’s edition of the Champions League finale rolled around, I was in a bit of a dilemma of who to root for. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Ji-sung (and by this point took the red pill and forever ditched baseball for football) watching his exploits at Man U while conversely rooting for Man U to lose. So who to support in the final: the NY Yankees of the EPL in Man U or the dream team of Messi and company? As I watched my first CL final in a soccer bar in Portland Maine where I had lived at the time, the entire game I was torn between cheering for Ji-sung to do well yet hoping for his side to slip up. In the end, the Barca machine was too much for Manchester to overcome. I watched with mixed emotions of seeing Messi maneuver with ease past Park Ji-sung, the most decorated Korean of all time – well at least as of 2011.
Fast forward to today, I have no reservations this time of who to lend support to. However, I have no inclination to crunch numbers and do comparison and contrasts to make predictions. It’s been a long road, for everyone, including Son. I would rather not toss more weight than necessary on him, the human emblem that must carry the torch for Korea and for all of Asian football. Yes there’s going to be nothing but words that’s thrown together to piece a narrative of what this means for Asian football, now and in the coming days. Yes, there is no escaping the fact that whether he likes it or not, he’s a living rep for all those manifestations aforementioned. But for the first time in a long time, I’m approaching this with a relative sense of calm and trying not to factor much of that into the match. The road for Son, from Chuncheon to Madrid has been quite a remarkable journey. And perhaps for all of us, it’s time to live in the moment. To enjoy that moment. To remember it’s a game first. Then we can hash out the significance of it after the rush of sounds and emotions crescendo within the 90 minute timeframe. I’ll see you on the other side of that. Dae Han Min Guk ya’ll.
Extra Time: Kwon Chang-hoon has already beaten Son in one respect- he’s already a Korean scoring an impactful goal (abroad) for this week. It’s the pro-rel playoffs in France and with minutes to go before FT, he did this to equalize in leg one:
Leg two is Sunday 3pm.
While we’re still in extra time, don’t forget to see Micheal Welch’s preview of Group A (possibly the Group of Death) in the Women’s World Cup. And yes, Korea is right in there.
Extra Extra Time: I’ve been promising for several years now to depart from the Tavern. What I didn’t know is that how much folks simply do not want the Tavern to go away. I’ll be leaving to complete some other long awaited projects (periodically returning to contribute if there’s time) but the Tavern will STILL be ongoing. Micheal Welch will be taking over the operations of the Tavern and seeking new contributors to it. Do talk to him if interested to contributing -it takes a village to continue a Tavern. All that said, the Patreon campaign (which many of you have so graciously contributed) will close for now – again many super thanks to everyone who contributed in our campaign. It meant so much to all of us to know how much you all support this endeavor. Another Patreon campaign may happen once version 2.0 of the Tavern is up. For now, please come back to the Tavern for all your U20 World Cup and Women’s World Cup coverage – and of course to follow up with Son’s time in the CL finale. Chal ga-yo!