Craziness… Lee Kang-in fights Son Heung-min? (update 2/15)

(I’m publishing this story now, but it will be updated with more news as it emerges and links to articles)

The story

A fight between the national team’s two key players emerged as the major story on Valentine’s Day as English tabloid, The Sun, reported that Son Heung-min has injured his fingers in a scuffle with Lee Kang-in the night prior to the Jordan match. 

So, what exactly is supposed to have happened? The initial story goes that following the team’s dinner, Lee Kang-in and some other younger players all got up to go play table tennis. Son Heung-min tried to stop them from going, citing the need for team bonding and sticking together. Somehow from there a mini-scuffle broke out between the sides with the two grabbing each other’s shirts and Son hurting his fingers. Other players stepped in to break things up, but both were apparently very unhappy with the other.

Following the initial reports, Korean media outlet, Dispatch, famous for their inside scoops for celebrity dating and ability to get information on any and all scandals, released their own report regarding the incident. Dispatch claimed that Lee Kang-in, Seol Young-woo, and Jeong Woo-young were playing table tennis rather than eating dinner. One unnamed senior player told the three to stop playing and eat dinner. Son Heung-min then reportedly stepped in to reiterate the other senior player’s message. Lee Kang-in then supposedly retorted something along the lines of “We’re not breaking any rules” (we can do what we want). Son then supposedly grabbed Lee Kang-in’s collar and Lee punched Son in the face. Chaos ensued and in the melee Son injured his fingers as they got caught in someone’s clothes and dislocated. Son and Lee supposedly made up with Son saying that they needed to just focus on the Jordan match and offered his hand. Lee shook his hand and apologized.

However, other senior players were unsatisfied and sought out Klinsmann. Dispatch alleges that these players were already sick of Lee Kang-in for other discretion/attitude issues. They asked for Lee Kang-in to be dropped from the starting XI against Jordan in order to save team chemistry. Klinsmann said he couldn’t do that and asked the players to play for him instead.

Following the release of Dispatch’s article, a legal representative for Lee Kang-in issued a statement saying that parts of the Dispatch article (and others) were false. Namely that Lee Kang-in punched Son Heung-min in the face. They also said that other senior players were playing table tennis and it was not just the three younger players.

In a separate report ‘Unnamed KFA insiders’ said that Son, Hwang Hee-chan, and Kim Min-jae were (or are) prepared to refuse to appear for the national team again if Lee Kang-in isn’t properly punished for his transaction.

Immediate aftermath

In the aftermath of the story breaking, Lee Kang-in did upload an apology story on his Instagram. He said he should have listened to the older players’ words and was sorry for disappointing so many. The apology seems to have done very little to assuage the anger among fans.

Seol Young-woo, who was mentioned in the Dispatch report, has already appeared publicly due to Ulsan playing an Asian Champions League match. Seol Young-woo declined to comment on the incident (he also scored a goal for Ulsan for what it’s worth).

Now, for the record, Son Heung-min has not come out of this completely unscathed either. In a time when ‘gapjil’ (people using age or seniority to push their ideas/will) is highly frowned upon, Son has come into criticism for not just letting the younger players go play and do what they will.

However, a look at the coverage and comments left on each players’ social media posts clearly reflects where the public’s sentiments lie – and it is firmly on the side of Son Heung-min.

The story should be a big nothing if we’re honest. Dressing room scuffles, disagreements between players are not rare. They happen. Tensions were high. All were under pressure. It happened. Move on. The issue is that is got leaked out to the media and spread like wildfire in Korea and Korean-focused media. Even outlets that tend to focus on politics and entertainment picked the story up.

If it’s a nothing story, why talk about it?

The reason why we’re bringing it up here on The Tavern is… just how did The Sun pick up this story to begin with? Did they see Son’s fingers and ask? Maybe, but the article just quotes “a source”. Most have taken this to be someone from the KFA. So, why is the KFA leaking a very embarrassing story about a quarrel between the national team’s two biggest players? Additionally, the KFA could have played it down or tried to deny it, but didn’t. They basically immediately confirmed it. 

The most common thinking is that the story was leaked in order to direct attention away from KFA president Chung Mong-gyu and Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann has no intention of walking away, and Chung likely has no intention of firing his coach so quickly. So, why not throw the media and public some juicy red meat to get attention so things can cool down?

That makes sense. Until you actually think about it. Because using this story has two major issues. One is that it brings attention back to Klinsmann. Why wasn’t the coaching staff there? Why did the situation escalate to that point? Does Klinsmann not have control over the squad? Has he not implemented rules regarding dining and routines before a match? (Dispatch’s report says basically that Klinsmann’s rule is for the players to take of things)

And indeed, Klinsmann’s leadership – or lack thereof – has become a focal point in the discussion. Dispatch compared him to former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, and lamented how Klinsmann had no control of the dressing room and let things spiral out of control. Former national team player Lee Chun-soo compared him to Guus Hiddink and how when Lee Chun-soo – prior to the 2002 World Cup – spoke publicly about his personal goal was for the team to reach the Round of 16, Hiddink tore him a new one for being so open with the media.

Klinsmann’s lack of leadership was on full show when he did an online interview/presser (I’m not entirely sure what it was) and not only denied he has any responsibility for the situation, but fully dropped the responsibility of the poor performance against Jordan on the players. Klinsmann said that the issue was between the players and not something he was responsible for dealing with. He also said the poor relationship between the players was the root of the poor performance.

The other issue is that it places the team’s future and (I imagine) second most popular player in the squad as the villain. We all know that Son Heung-min is insanely popular. Not only did Lee Kang-in challenge Korean societal norms in terms of the hyung/dongsaeng and sunbae/hoobae relationship, but he also caused a physical injury to Son. Now Son was not badly injured of course, and you can have differing views on the importance of societal relationships. But, there is no doubt that those remain important things in Korea.  

Did the KFA (if they did leak the story) decide to gamble on this one because they imagine that Lee Kang-in’s popularity and talent was enough that he could withstand the torrent of criticism he was destined to face? “Just post a quick apology. People will understand and move on.” Was that the plan? If so, it’s failing spectacularly.

On Lee Kang-in and Son Heung-min

In my reflection’s post, I said that Lee Kang-in is the future and the team needs to start building around him. I still stand by that point – although it will be an uphill battle for him to return to the good graces of both the fans and, seemingly, the senior players in the national team. For now, the best case seems to be for Lee Kang-in to return to Paris and really put in a shift with PSG – especially in the Champions League – and remind the public just how talented he is. Beyond that he will just need to keep his head down, act humble, and start to work to repair any damaged relationships within the squad.

I’m actually reminded a bit of the reported Son Heung-min/Kim Min-jae ‘fight’ when Kim Min-jae said he’d rather focus on finishing the season with Napoli than fly around the world for friendlies with Korea. Another nothing story that – at least for a little while – exploded.

I bring that story up for one reason. After that story I criticized Son Heung-min for not being (in my opinion) a better captain. After Kim Min-jae’s comments, Son did nothing to try to calm some of the furor (and more extreme takes on Kim Min-jae’s comments), and in some ways poured some extra fuel on the fire by expressing his love of the shirt and pride of representing Korea. I had said then, that I would have hoped that – even if he disagreed with Kim Min-jae’s thoughts – that he would embrace his role to help shield and protect the players.

I have a similar feeling here. Since the story broke, Son Heung-min has been extremely quiet on social media. As I write this update, he has posted a story and post to his Instagram – an advertisement for a suitcase. I don’t know the full story of what happened. It sounds like Son did very little wrong and a whole lot right. It sounds like he has lots of reasons to be upset and unhappy with what’s going on. But again, as captain, I would hope that he would come out and issue a short statement. He doesn’t need to say everything that happened. He doesn’t need to apologize for anything. But it would be nice if he tried to calm anger towards Lee Kang-in and the younger players. It would be nice if he tried to re-frame the conversation towards the future and to try to use his seemingly infinite levels of positivity to shift the mood around and towards the team.

What’s next?

Klinsmann does seem to be at the end of the line as KNT boss. The Technical Committee met today (2/15) and at the end they said they will recommend to fire Klinsmann due to not only technical failings as a manager (the Asian Cup performance showed a lack of proper preparation), but also due to a lack of leadership. Once again the KFA’s poor ability to plan and select a proper manager will bite them in the ass as Klinsmann will reportedly be due over $500,000 USD for the remainder of his contract. While it’s not a guarantee, it seems highly likely (to me at least) that the manager that sees through the 2026 World Cup cycle will likely be a Korean manager who is already in the KFA system (someone like U23 boss Hwang Sun-hong).

About Jae Chee 339 Articles
A football fan who got bit by the writing bug.


  1. Yeah I’m very very skeptical it was an actual punch which everyone is reporting. It makes more sense if he just tried to push his hands away and he brushed Sons face. If it was a punch to the face this would be a whole lot worse.

    What a damn mess. Makes sense now why they looked so lifeless and disconnected against Jordan.

  2. I really appreciate your commentary but I’m a bit baffled at your expectations regarding Son as a Captain. He has taken responsibility whenever results are poor and works his ass off for the team and takes on most of the pressure and the burden of a lot of the sometime unrealistic expectations from KNT fans, but you also expect him to take responsibility for when players fuck up off the pitch? Why does Sonny need to be the shield and take blame because KMJ has cero media training and blurts whatever comes to mind to the press without watching his words and then misunderstands a scheduled IG post and reacts like a teenager by blocking Sonny when he knows he has all the press watching his actions with a magnifying glass? Why does Sonny need to speak up to shield LKI when he ended up with a hurt finger and LKI barely posted a very vague apology on stories (not even a feed post)? Players need to take responsibility for their actions and accountability in order to grow as people and professionals. Son is a captain that leads by example on and off the pitch, but expecting him to always be the one taking the heat is ridiculous.Then again if you consider him showing emotion makes him look like a “weak” captain … I’m not surprised at all.

    • I appreciate your comment and know that my position on Son is not one that many will share (many also did not share it when I said it after the KMJ incident either). I don’t expect him to shield LKI in a direct way (“LKI did nothing wrong it’s fine”). But whether Son says something or doesn’t say anything, he says something you know? By not saying anything he implicitly is saying that all the media speculation, all the cursing of everyone that’s not him, this is all fine. I’m okay with this. Sure KMJ then and LKI (and whoever else is involved) now, need to take responsibility for their actions. But, and this is my opinion of course, Son is captain of this team, and to me a captain needs to go beyond just taking care of their own business. Unfortunately, there is a lack of leadership when it comes to the national team – from the KFA chairman to the (now ex) coach. Maybe Son shouldn’t have to help put out fires that are the making of other’s actions, but I still think – especially considering the huge influence he has – that it is unfortunate that he has chosen to remain quiet. I don’t consider him showing emotion to make him look weak (I think I’ve said that when he doesn’t perform to expectations and cries, then it opens him to criticism and ridicule), but I do expect a captain to look out for the best interests of the team and the squad as a whole.

  3. Klinsmann is gone. But you know what? I don’t feel that happy and have little faith that things will get better soon. We have issues that have nothing to do with JK. The KFA needs serious change as we all know, and the players better figure out a way to get over their shit. I think conflict between players can be a really good thing, and stuff like this happens all the time to teams behind closed doors. But for some reason this feels different and potentially damaging. The age issue in Korea is so real. I don’t know if a Korean setup is prepared for such a young brash superstar who is primed to take over the team. LKI actually benefitted from JK, who likely didn’t give a fuck about the age issue and would play LKI regardless of what older players want. I can totally see a Korean manager coming in and benching LKI or maybe not even calling him up as “punishment”.

    대한민국!!! (facepalm)

    • Very true. Klinsmann is a symptom (so to speak) of the problem, but not the problem itself. Until the KFA – whether it’s Chung Mong-gyu or someone else – can straighten out some of the underlying stuff we’ll continue to see issues like this. I think things will eventually come back to ‘normal’ but at the same time it does feel like there are some real issues in the dressing room that need to be addressed. I think a lot of the issues come from timing and the lack of clarity into what actually happened. If the match had been a friendly or we had at least played well, I think things may not have been as bad. Unfortunately, I think regardless of what the next manager does, it will be potentially a lose-lose for LKI. Play him and I imagine the fans vent their anger and curse him out (and the manager). Don’t play him and you risk alienating one of the most talented players Korea has seen in a long while.

    • The thought crossed my mind that LKI’s upbringing was mostly in Spain cmiiw. More individual, brash, machismo, “don’t tell me what to do”. I also imagine he faced mild to overt racism as an Asian, from both teammates & opposition while coming up. Thankfully his natural personality seems to be pugnacious & confident, so his default is to hit back, stand up for himself. Not a bad thing.

      Now put him in a situation where doing what he wants, speaking his mind and lashing out reflexively as a matter of course can get him in serious trouble, more than elsewhere. That could be the case here.

      I don’t know LKI’s other traits, he could very well be arrogant, thoughtless, a punk; this would be problematic and require personal improvement. In some ways this reminds me of Lee Seung Woo, another Barca academy product who inspired such hope & expectations, and also didn’t lack for “latin” personality, arguably to his detriment.

      I hope LKI works on w/e he needs to work on, with more thoughtfulness, perspective & humility, continuing a trajectory of becoming a better player and a better man.

  4. I’m so glad that Son has not participated in this media leaks, frenzy, circus, etc. ! So far it looks like both athletes are hurt, especially Son. They collaborated with each other really well before this.

  5. I am a big fan of Sonny but I am a bit disappointed with him here as a captain and as a hyung. Anyone can be a leader when things go smoothly, anyone can be a captain of a well behaved team. It is when things become difficult that you can truly see someone’s leadership skills and their character. He is a captain of the PLAYERS of South Korea not a captain of the whole country or the korean public, and I wonder if he has confused the two.

    So, as a captain and as an experienced and professional player I expected him to be the bigger man, to not take things personally, and to protect his misbehaved hoobae, no matter if he likes him or not. The captain does not need to like the players, but protecting them is one of the main responsibilities of the job. He has such a huge fanbase that only one general statement of his would suffice. It pains me to see that Son is witnessing Lee Kang In being hunted so unmercifully without feeling for him.

    I am not Korean but to my understanding, yes, the Korean culture expects the dongsaeng to listen to the hyung, but doesn’t it also expect the hyung to protect and care for the dongsaeng? Doesn’t it expect for the hyung to be the composed and sober of the two and to be the one to teach by example? Or maybe I’ve got it wrong, and when/if the dongsaeng breaks the norm then the relationship is in shatters and from then on anything goes?

  6. It’s a mess. A lot of rumors are flying but it’s hard to figure out what actually happened. But, the lastest information that came out was Coach Klinsmann and his staff were at that fateful dinner. Another word, Captain Son was not the highest authority present. The younger one has to listen to the elder in Korean culture? Come on. Even if that’s the norm for Korean culture, what about other elders, namely Coach Klinsmann, at the Dinner? People talk about “the munity” from Lee Kang-In. But then, who was really out of pecking order here? Pushing other team members every minutes including player’s own REST TIMES? Everyone handles the stress differently. I would not blame Lee as a culfrit who started the scuffle. Especially, it was Son who grap Lee by the collar first.

  7. This whole mess is so ridiculous. Everything from the KFA to JK to Son and LKI and the elders and youngers. Couple things I wanted to add in agreement with Jae.

    First, Son has never been that great a leader in the KNT. He’s been way better in recent times compared to when the KMJ thing happened. Somebody earlier asked why does Son have to cover for anyone. There’s an obvious answer to that. That line of question makes somewhat sense IF he’s only an elder (and even then I think that’s a silly question). It’s the elder’s and especially the captain’s responsibility to lookout for the team. Now, if everything blew over that would be one thing. However, Son would have to be extra oblivious if he’s unaware of how LKI is getting absolutely crucified for something that is absolutely not commensurate to his supposed failing, and that is even if he did somehow punch Son, which I think sounds absolutely preposterous. Son knows how to lead by example. He’s humble and works his tail off. That IS good leadership. But that’s not the whole of leadership. There’s something I have not seen anyone talk about. The whole melee itself is a reflection on leadership. You can’t say that LKI and the younger players are all at fault and that the elder players have none, unless you are conceding that leadership is meaningless. If leadership means something, it should never have escalated.

    But, to me, that’s ALL a sort of distraction. Elite athletes get into fights all the time. And you know what? Even Son and LKI know this, which is why they had no problem making up and apologizing. My opinion is similar to Jae. This whole news blowing up sounds fishy, and is more likely a product of the shitshow that is the KFA. They consistently make poor decisions and stupid stuff like this happens. To get rid of JK, they’re good with burning the house down, when they’re the idiots that created the fire to begin with in hiring him because of their poor leadership.

    Finally, the whole hubae/sunbae is just bullshit culture, and the level of toxicity it has is just atrocious. As an aside, this rigid hierarchical type of sunbae/hubae culture is one that was adopted from Japan. People don’t usually know this. But regardless, if the media and netizens want to speculate, I offer my own speculation. I would not be surprised if Kim Young Gwon was part of the toxic group of elder players. That guy has always been an ahole and made passive comments that were often communicating distaste for loosening of the elder/younger hierarchy. I have zero issues with respecting your elders. But if you’re getting your jollies off of trying to lord over power over others, they should have no place on the team either. I don’t think Son is actually one of those types of players, and I think it’s likely that he’s actually not a bad inside-the-lockerroom leader. It’s not that hard to be like, “Hey, fans. Take it easy. He’s young and he’s learning.”

    Oh, a P.S. that I just realized. This is kinda uncanny how this debacle feels similar to the USMNT debacle between Reyna and his teammates, except the US issue was FAR worse. But, Korean netizens aren’t exactly known for their fairmindedness and having perspective either, blowing this minute issue into basically an attempt to raise pitchforks and cancel LKI.

      • But what do you make of his instagram post? I am reading a translation so I am probably missing a lot, but it seems that Son is focusing on how Lee Kang In did wrong and that he (Son) and the other elders will help Lee to become a better character and player… I am a bit disappointed by that, actually. Son kind of got smaller in my eyes, and I have been a huge fan of him. I was hoping for something more manly (as in more grown up, more mature and courageous, and taking responsibility). It seems that for Son the hierarchy indeed matters a lot or… could it be that he was advised to write it like this because his PR team think that this is what the public want to see in order to back off?
        I am very interested in what people think , as I might be reading this wrong

        • PS Also, Son waited for Lee to go to London until he posted a “back off” message… how can it be that his heart had not been braking for his teammate until that time? It seems that he was too bitter and hurt to feel for his relentlessly attacked teammate and I wonder if Son gets easily affected by public opinion..

        • I believe it’s 100% Son, not PR team. But, inital translation was too strong. It stated “Lee is unethical.” But, the translation should have been “Lee’s wrongdoing.” Later translation was toned down. Either way, the message is clear. Son stronly believes that Lee Kangin did something wrong. And, Son vowed to mentor Lee from this point on and guide him to better himself. When I read that message, it gave me a chill. I would never have someone who used the physical force on me as my mentor. I worry about Lee Kangin. For his own goods, he should not be part of Korean National Team. By the way, I am a 65 year old Korean granny living abroad. I was neither fan of Lee or Son until 2023 Asian Cup.

        • I find both players’ responses perfectly predictable. Lee realised shit had truly hit the fan when frenzied netizens tried to cancel him – and issued a more contrite version of the earlier (non) apology. He might or might not have received advice from his legal team, but anyone with some measure of sense would not risk his career going downhill when it has barely started.

          In the initial stages of controversy, Son probably wanted to lie low and wait for things to blow over. With the second apology out there and Lee taking a trip to London, it would be petty of Son to appear to bear any more grudges. The stuff about mentoring his junior is just a socially-acceptable thing to say, in line with the sunbae-hoobae dynamics so many have mentioned on here. (I do agree with Sun Kim – I’m not sure I want to be mentored by a person who grabs me by the collar.)

          Cultural dynamics notwithstanding, there’s nothing either player has done that is so out- of-character with how an average person might respond during a workplace conflict. We love to imagine our sporting heroes as role models. But the ability to perform athletic feats is not an accurate predictor of moral or behavioural standards.

          If anything, it might simply make more sense to temper our expectations of these sporting figures. Their on-field performances are often disappointing enough without us needing to be dragged into their off-field antics too.

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