SEOUL, Korea, Republic of, Jan 31 – If Son Heung-min helps Tottenham Hotspur overcome Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Juventus in coming weeks, then fans of the North London club should save some praise for the South Korean’s father.
Son Woong-Jung has played a major role in developing a player who has become Asia’s record scorer in the Premier League and, arguably, the best player the continent has produced.
Son senior was a professional player of some repute in the K-League in the eighties and, in terms of style, there is a family resemblance. Until injury ended his career at 28, Son displayed the sort of speed and technical excellence that Spurs fans have come to love in his offspring.
After his playing days were over, Son took to coaching. “I don’t think I was really satisfied as a player,” he told a Korean documentary. “But coaching players was different. He is my son but I am proud to say that his technique and basic ball skills are among the best.”
The 25-year-old was worked hard from an early age. “We raised him strictly.”
The father took Son out of high school at the age of 16 to head to Germany and SV Hamburg, an unusual decision for young Korean prospects who traditionally join a professional club after university.
“I wouldn’t have become the player I have without my father,” Son said, after leaving Hamburg for Bayer Leverkusen in 2013.
– Korean idol –
While the two may have similarities on the pitch, it is a little different off it. Past coaches recall that the father was something of a loner in the team environment, and not one to mix with his fellow players.
But Son junior is a hugely popular figure at his club.
“On and off the pitch, he is very positive and optimistic and has been since the beginning, ” Park Yong-Soo, head of administration at the Korea Football Association, told AFP.
The player’s smile has become almost as famous in England as back in his homeland. “He always had it, even when he was hurt on the pitch, and that has made him especially popular with Korean girls.”
Son left the Bundesliga in August 2015 to sign for Tottenham. After an up-and-down first season, when he showed only flashes of his ability, he came into his own in 2016-2017, scoring 14 Premier League goals and 21 in total.
He has continued to shine this season and has been one of the Premier League’s most exciting forwards, bagging eight goals so far this campaign to help Spurs lie fifth.
Son has already surpassed Park Ji-Sung’s record to become the Premier League’s most prolific Asian player. Last term, he beat Bundesliga great Cha Bum-Kun’s Korean mark for goals in a European season.
There are plenty of opportunities to come this season: Spurs are still alive in the FA Cup, and they will play Juventus in the Champions League last 16 from February 13.
In a tough run of fixtures, they also entertain Manchester United on Wednesday and play Liverpool and Arsenal on February 5 and 10 respectively.
“His smile disappeared in Germany for a time,” said Park. “But he has found it again in England. He is performing well and playing his best football.”
– ‘Pride all over Asia’ –
Match-winning displays in the Premier League and the Champions League have made Son Asia’s most popular player. He was named as Asia’s International Player of the Year by the Asian Football Confederation in 2017.
“There is pride all over Asia in Son,” Steve Kim, former head of competitions at the Asian Football Confederation, told AFP. “He is playing at the highest level and shows all Asians that it can be done. Especially in countries where the Premier League is very popular, Son is held in very high regard.”
When he returns to Korea in the close-season, Son often visits his father’s other great project: the Son Football Academy, nestling in the hills of the family’s native Gangwon province.
At the academy, Son Woong-Jung has created a top-of-the-range training facility dedicated to helping other young players follow in his son’s footsteps.
“He can be a role model for years to come and for Koreans and Asians. He is the best Korean player,” said Park, adding that Son may not get much time at home this summer. “He will be busy at the World Cup and Korean fans expect very much from him.”