Reflecting on Son Heung-min’s captaincy and should Kim Min-jae take the armband?

Photo courtesy of Kyeonggi Sinmun

So, for this post we decided to try something slightly different. We (Jae, Jinseok, and Roy) had an online conversation discussing Son Heung-min’s captaincy and is it time for the armband to pass to Kim Min-jae?

Q: What do you think of Son Heung-min’s captaincy so far? Has he been a ‘good’ captain?

Jae: I think Son Heung-min has been a fine captain. Remember when Kim Young-gwon said the home crowd was too loud and the defenders couldn’t communicate well? Nothing like that with Sonny. Most of the comments around Son Heung-min as captain have been quite positive.

Jinseok: I do agree that most player comments around Son have been very positive. He is THE face of Korean football and I think anyone playing with him will respect him and awe him just for his footballing ability alone, in addition to other factors we’re not aware of. My one gripe about SHM as captain is the whole crying thing. It makes us look immature and mentally feeble, and kind of sends the wrong message as the captain. Especially when the whole world’s watching. Can you interpret it as passion? Absolutely, but I still think it’s not a good look. On the other hand, watch this video of Kim Min Jae yelling at Son to get back in position and stop complaining to the referee – this is captain material right here. Reminds me of Puyol from back in the day. 

Kim Min-jae yelling at Son Heung-min. Caption reads “Kim Min-jae / Monster – “Ah stop [complaining] and get forward hyung!” Photo courtesy of Wikitree.

Jae: Admittedly, the crying after every loss is getting to be a bit much. While I think it’s fine on a personal level, I think it does ‘backfire’ on him a bit when he doesn’t perform to a decent standard in a “you didn’t even play well, what are you crying for?” kind of way.

Roy: Son has been a decent captain, particularly in the run up to the 2018 World Cup. My recollection was that the small sample of results for the KNT prior to Son being named de facto captain was inconsistent wobbly performances. Of course there’s many moving parts to assessing team performance contextually and who the captain is factors less than how the team is coached. Nevertheless, the team appeared to play more proactively when Son wore the captain’s armband. For the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, as usual, Korea bullied minnows in early qualifying stages and wobbled in the final qualifying round to earn their 10th consecutive ticket to the big dance. In that span of time, Son was THE headlining mascot that his countrymen could rally around. His leadership skills weren’t bad, his physical exuberance along with curt communication on the pitch could at times inspire the team to grab the game by the horns and manage to get across the finish line. However, one can make a constructive critique that Son, while at times the difference maker for his national side, wasn’t as cutting edge effective as he was for his north London club; could that be his carrying too much burden on his shoulders instead of sharing that with a rotating cast of KNT partners? Was it down to Bento’s tactics and selection of attacking partners (ie. possibly Hwang Ui-jo being too ponderous in central positions for Son to be fluid in his attack)? Or was it down to an over-emotional aspect of Son’s personality that was too fragile when the chips were down? With Son gradually moving closer to the twilight of his career, questions remain as to whether he is effective as captain of the Taeguek Warriors going forward into the next World Cup campaign – coinciding with the post-Bento era. 

Q: What do you think is the future of Son Heung-min’s role with the national team?

Jae: Regardless of what you think about Son Heung-min, he will almost certainly have a key role to play with the national team. His immense stardom and popularity means he’s virtually undroppable unless a manager with *ahem* massive huevos is appointed. That’s before we even start talking about the KFA and their need for money and deals that require Son Heung-min to play for the national team.

Jinseok: As Jae said, only a manager with cojones could drop him. Though I think there’s a case to drop European based players for WC qualifying matches against teams like Tajikistan or Sri Lanka.

Jae: I agree, Jinseok, and definitely think the European-based players should receive less call ups for early qualifying matches and friendlies, but as we’ll talk about in a bit, they are also the big marketing players who will bring fans to the stadiums. Will the KFA risk losing a financial opportunity for the sake of football?

KFA chairman Chung Mong-gyu. Photo courtesy of Chosun Ilbo.

Jinseok: ah right the KFA would absolutely never do that – but maybe a proper decent foreign coach would realize that traveling halfway across the world every month can be really detrimental to a player (Lee Kang In said in an interview after his recent KNT callups that he can see why Ki Sung Yong and Park Ji Sung retired early)

Son may have sucked really hard for the national team, at least relative to his club performances, but he’s still the face of Korean football and on paper our best player. We haven’t really taken advantage of that at all, and what to do with him remains up in the air. I thought Bento had it figured out when he was using SHM up top prior to the World Cup, which worked well and got SHM at the end of a lot of dangerous counterattacks. But regardless of all that, Son will always be called up as long as he wants to play for the KNT.

Roy: Yeah, in a perfect world, no one is undroppable, and call ups to the national team should be based on current form and how they fit into team dynamics. But, as the case with Portugal 2022 showed, the public’s unwritten expectation that 37 year old Cristiano Ronaldo, the face of Portuguese football for over 16 years, continue to represent, was a monkey on manager Fernando Santos’ shoulders. The decision finally to drop Ronaldo to the bench was a bold gamble that paid off for Portugal against Switzerland in the Round of 16 although probably too little too late to see Portugal get past a resilient Morocco in the quarterfinals.

Son at age 30, is not in a similar case; should he remain healthy, will likely be an impact player for the foreseeable future for both club and country. But there are potential warning signs for Son, who has had a slow start in the current Premier League season after his golden boot winning scorcher in 2021-2022.  Nevertheless, barring major catastrophic injury, Son should be back in form when he’s fully fit.  How long he’s in good form for club and country is anyone’s guess, but with modern sports science, perhaps the shelf life for athletes like Son could be extended when considering the ages of current greats like Lewandowski (age 34), Messi (age 35) and the current Balon D’or winner Benzema (age 35). But to circle back to CR7, while one can’t argue with how lethal he was in his prime, fast forward to the present with a media darling past his prime but refusing to ride off into the sunset for the benefit of the team —what could that look like with Son’s situation when that day finally arrives? 

Jae: Roy, I also think it will be interesting to see how Son transforms as he enters the last stage of his career. Ronaldo presented a lot of problems for Madrid, Juventus, and United since he could never really turn into a true 9 yet insisted on occupying space that both a 9 and 11 would take. Son, as you mentioned, will potentially present the same issue eventually. Can Son adjust and develop more playmaking ability, so he continues to be an asset in the midfield or does he need to develop more natural center forward traits?

Fortunately, I don’t think Son will be anything like Ronaldo in terms of refusing to ride off into the sunset. I think the problem will be more that the public and media will refuse to let him ride off into the sunset. Maybe someone like Cho Gue-sung or Lee Kang-in can really step forward and become a media darling/fan favorite to take some of the pressure off?

Q: Do you think the public/media’s obsession with Son Heung-min is beneficial or a distraction/negative?

Son Heung-min arriving at Incheon Airport. Photo courtesy of Gyeongin Ilbo.

Roy: Hard to say, but I think that the burden he takes on himself due to that immense public spotlight is unhealthy and likely counterproductive to his performances on the pitch while in KNT uniform. It could be beneficial if viewed from a big picture “inspiring-of-a-new-generation-of-Korean-kids perspective” IF Korea can channel that towards proper grassroots development and improvement of the creative developmental pipeline of talent.

Jae: To be honest, here I’m a little conflicted. I think having a player with the star power that Son Heung-min possesses is a good thing for the national team. It brings attention to the team, which – sometimes good and sometimes bad – forces the KFA to do things. At the same time, sometimes it does feel like it becomes too much of a distraction, and that sometimes things are done that are ultimately detrimental to the team.

Jinseok: I think overall it’s good. A team needs a balance of stars and teamwork – and somehow Korea and Japan seem to be on the opposite ends of that spectrum. I think the major downside is the pressure it piles on Son’s shoulders to perform. I’m wondering Jae, how exactly has it been a distraction? The one thing I can think of is all the transfer rumors which I feel like can be distracting to the player, or maybe the media spreading drama/misinformation which I’m sure can’t be good for the team?

Jae: Jinseok, I think it’s a distraction because he just massively overshadows everything else. It might not actually pan out with a detailed look, but sometimes it feels like everything Korean-football is reduced to how it relates to Son Heung-min. I would also agree with you, Roy, that the pressure from the public spotlight does occasionally make him force things on the pitch sometimes. Of course, it’s hard to say definitively because we’ve never really been able to see him play for Korea without that media spotlight. 

Q: Is it time for a change and pass the captaincy to Kim Min-jae?

Son Heung-min and Kim Min-jae. Photo courtesy of Mediapen.

Jae: I wouldn’t be utterly distraught if the armband was passed to Kim Min-jae. However, I don’t think that it’s an absolute necessity to do so now. Kim Min-jae shows a lot of leadership ability and will certainly be the bearer of the armband at some point in the future, but I don’t think he needs the captaincy for him to demonstrate those abilities. Additionally, handing the armband to Kim Min-jae now, especially while Son Heung-min is still in the team, could be a detriment to him overall. He would certainly face a lot of hate from Son Heung-min fans and a lot more pressure as the new face of the team.

Jinseok: Jae, I totally agree with you here. KMJ and after him Lee Kang In should be our captains in 2026 and 2030, but the time is not now. For exactly the reasons you mentioned. Maybe after the Asian Cup or something Son could publicly (Instagram or media) pass the baton to KMJ? 

Roy: I’ll take the counter point – it could be beneficial for both Son and Kim to anoint the Napoli defender sooner rather than later. Korea needs defensive leadership to hold down the fort and become stingy again with conceding goals. Since 2002, there’s been a slight shift towards midfield and attacking prolificacy – which is laudable – but possibly at the expense of defensive solidity – particularly at fullback areas (save for Lee Young-pyo). Centerback leadership under Kim Min-jae could re-ignite that rebalancing effort – that in turn can add to and support the attack in a modern total-football sensibility that would make Guus Hiddink proud. 

I also circle back to the idea that Son is overburdened with the weight of the captain’s armband. I applaud that he takes it as seriously as he does – that’s not in question. However I continue to believe Son is not as effective nor as creative with that weight on his shoulders – no pun intended. The captaincy, while it factors less than others, I’d venture to speculate, is a pivotal role that carries with it an overwhelming burden – perhaps too much for Son’s emotional state that he wears quite openly. 

Jae: A slight aside, but I do wonder how the KFA would react to Son if he came and said, “I think it’s time for Kim Min-jae to be the captain of the national team”. These days it’s pretty normal for the team’s biggest star to be the captain short of an objective system (IE Real Madrid’s captain is whoever on the pitch has played the most matches for the club). Would the KFA accept the idea or insist that Son keep it as the face of the team? Also, while Son seems very humble, and certainly his father has tried very hard to keep him down-to-earth, I still wonder if Son has the personality to voluntarily pass the armband while he’s still in the team?

Jinseok: Great questions Jae. I think there’s a real theme going on here of the KFA meddling too much, which they obviously do…

Q: Can Kim Min-jae handle the pressure that will come with taking the armband off Son Heung-min?

Roy: Being a new Napoli centerback, filling in for the departed Koulibaly is no easy feat. Asking if he experiences pressure there in Serie A and the Champions League is like asking if FIFA is corrupt. The answer is clear and if he can handle that – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he can handle the pressure of wearing the KNT armband.

Jinseok: If Son and the rest of the team come to a consensus and hand the armband to KMJ, I’m sure it won’t be a problem at all. Now if the coach unilaterally suddenly decides that KMJ is the new captain, then we have a bit of an issue. Also I’m certain that KMJ already plays a big leadership role in the team. The armband is largely ceremonial and knowing how Korean culture works, I’m certain that the real leadership in our World Cup squad actually came from Jung Woo Young Sr. or Kim Young Kwon. 

Jae: Jinseok, I think you bring up a key point, given how Korean culture still values the sunbae-hoobae relationship (even if it is still slightly overblown), and especially in the sports world. Even if the armband went to Kim Min-jae would he do much differently or would it just be ceremonial? I don’t know if either of you know, but how is Kim Min-jae at media interviews? Being the captain he would be in front of the mic more than he is now. I referenced Kim Young-gwon’s disaster moment that cost him the captaincy, and Jinseok you mentioned Ki Sung-yueng as a good captain in front of the media. Any thoughts on where Kim Min-jae would fall?

Jinseok: KMJ has been decent at interviews, nothing weird, saying the usual stuff. 

Q: How does the team benefit (or not) from a Kim Min-jae captain?

Jae: Honestly, I don’t think the team ultimately benefits from Kim Min-jae taking the armband right away. Kim Min-jae will almost definitely take a strong leadership position in the defense and with the midfielders regardless of whether he has the armband or Son Heung-min has it. Additionally, I think the controversy that would come with passing the armband to Kim Min-jae could become a significant and unnecessary distraction to the team.

Jinseok: Agreed with Jae, but I think in an ideal situation, the passing of the baton is handled well, the team feels the same way, and the team ultimately benefits by having the ceremonial leader be a little more mature and mentally strong – someone who doesn’t ugly cry after any bad result. 

Roy: Great points from both Jae and Jinseok…I can’t add much more other than I think the timing of the baton passing has to be strategic, calibrated and in mutual agreement from both players to coordinate with messaging that the Korean public can digest and accept. When that time arrives, how the KNT manages that will be also a bellwether of their own leadership credentials (or lack thereof). 

Jae: While you’ve both mentioned it in some capacity, do you really think anything other than a Son Heung-min retirement from the national team would be an acceptable reason for the armband to be passed? I think Kim Min-jae is much loved within the football fan community, but does that stretch to the general public that only really pays attention every four years?

Jinseok: As KMJ gets more and more “street cred” I think even the general public will start to take notice. If it’s enough for the public to not go bonkers about an armband swap, I don’t know. The Korean public is so mercurial you never really know…

Captain Kim Min-jae at the 2018 Asian Games. Photo courtesy of Sports Chosun.

Q: Any final comments or thoughts?

Jinseok: I can’t find the video but there’s also a video of Lee Kang In in the mixed zone after the match against Ghana – he’s so mature for his age and gave me Tyler Adams vibes. And while we’re on the subject can we just applaud Ki Sung Yong for saying, and I quote, “the captain of the South Korean national football team should not play in China” when asked about a rumored transfer to the CSL. One of my top KNT captain moments right there. 

Roy: Getting into the weeds slightly – in past KNT games where Son’s other attacking partners weren’t as effective – you can see Son taking on the lone ranger Maradona mode of operating – that’s when Son becomes more susceptible to dribbling into dead ends, losing the ball often, and frustrating himself out of the game. While he has occasionally pulled out of his pocket Maradona-esque runs (think 2019 Puskas award winning goal against Burnley) more often than not – unlocking optimal Son mode occurs when paired tactically with fluid attacking partners – think DESK era Spurs or current SKK (Son Kane Kulusevski) with space and options for Son to run behind defenders.  No KNT manager, Bento included, has figured out how to get the best out of Son. Like I mentioned earlier, I think relieving Son of the stress of the captaincy could be a step to getting the best out of him.

About Jae Chee 331 Articles
A football fan who got bit by the writing bug.

3 Comments

  1. My god have I missed you guys. This article is great for two reasons. 1) I don’t publicly say this because I do love Son, but he really needs to stop crying. I can understand passion, but crying hysterically after every loss? It really looks bad. I’m ok with it when it’s tears of joy after a crazy win (Germany/Portugal). And if he did it after one loss, you could chalk it up to passion. But he literally cries after every big loss. He has some issue going on, especially when he’s the only one on the team who does that.
    2) I have fallen more in love with KMJ thanks to the video you added. Screaming at the superstar player who is 4 years older than you, within the constraints of Korean culture? Massive balls on this guy, and I’m all for it.

  2. Son is a great player and perhaps the Korean football GOAT but he is in decline (ever so slightly) and never really had leadership skills. I don’t want this to come across as any kind of criticism. I am just reflecting who he is as a person. He is a happy go lucky guy that just enjoy being out on the pitch scoring beautiful goals therefore I agree that change would be positive.

    • Well it is fairly common nowadays for the team’s “best” player (or most popular player) to be the captain, and given how big the gap in popularity from Son to the next is, it’s not a surprise to see him with the armband. I’m not sure he’s in decline yet, but this season has been very iffy for him and significant drop off from last season. Off year due to injury, mid-season World Cup or the start of the drop? We’ll see.

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