CHUNCHEON, Korea, Republic of, May 7 – The South Korean star leading Tottenham Hotspur’s charge for a place in the Champions League final had a unique football upbringing. But that was only one component of his success, his brother told AFP.
Striker Son Heung-min, 26, has been instrumental in Spurs’ run to the semi-finals of Europe’s top club competition, scoring three times over two legs against Manchester City to reach the last four.
But he was suspended for the first leg of the semi, a 1-0 home defeat to Ajax, and will be crucial to their efforts in the Netherlands on Wednesday, despite picking up a petulant Premier League red card at the weekend.
Around 8,500 kilometres (5,300 miles) away, his elder brother and fellow striker Son Heung-yun — three years his senior — will be watching closely.
For years, the two boys were trained by their father, Son Woong-jung, a former professional footballer who aimed to take his sons to the top with a strict and disciplined regimen.
“Everything we did revolved around football,” said Heung-yun. “Our father told us we had to go to bed early to play football and that we had to eat well to play football.
“He always said that life was short and we should do things we liked and when we did, we should pursue it to the point of going a little bit crazy about it.”
Renowned for concentrating on ball skills and not allowing them to shoot or join a team — where they might be distracted by trying too hard to win games — their father laid a foundation for the rising Son.
The brothers would exchange glances as they endured the tough daily sessions.
Heung-yun remembers training one New Year’s Day on a snow-covered lot in bitter cold as a 13-year-old. Before he knew it, he covered his ears with his hands, only for his father — who was showing his sons how to dribble — to turn back and immediately berate him, as he often did when he felt they were not trying their best.
“We were raised very tough,” said Heung-yun, who as a player only reached the fifth tier of German club competition but now coaches at the SON Football Academy run by his father.
“We were hit by our father a lot when training, which is unimaginable these days,” he added. “Some of our neighbours even doubted he was our real father.”
– Fermented cabbage –
Both boys looked up to their father — who spent hours picking up the tiniest pebbles on a dirt lot before his sons came for practice — and took his words as “law”.
But the older brother often clashed with their father, taking after his hot temper, while Heung-min accepted everything that was thrown at him.
“Even when he was reprimanded by our father, Heung-min was able to shake it off and smile,” Heung-yun told AFP.
Son’s transformation from Korean hopeful to European star was catalysed by the youth academy at Hamburg SV, which he joined aged 16, leaving school to do so in a highly unusual decision backed by his father.
But it started inauspiciously. Soon after Heung-min arrived in Germany, he called his family to say he was missing them and even kimchi, the fermented cabbage dish that is a mainstay of the Korean table.
“He never really liked kimchi but he was crying and said he wanted to eat kimchi and missed our family,” Heung-yun said, noting his brother also had to face language barriers and racism.
He told Heung-min he had to overcome the difficulties — and in the event the entire family moved to Hamburg to support the youngest Son.
– ‘Desire to win’ –
In elementary school Heung-min snacked on junk food and was quite chubby, his brother said, but was always determined to make it as a footballer.
“He had a strong sense of purpose,” added Kwon Soon-young, Son’s homeroom teacher in middle school.
“He tried to learn English and kept a journal where he wrote that he will achieve his dream as a football player.”
Son was bright and friendly and known as a happy kid, says his brother, but adds that he was always very competitive.
“When we were young, we played video games a lot and Heung-min is quite good and we both hated losing so we would practice video games on our own,” he said.
But ultimately, he added: “Both Heung-min and I shared the goal of joining the national team, and in that sense I did not succeed while Heung-min did.”
The striker was seen in floods of tears after his Taeguk Warriors lost to Mexico at last year’s World Cup, paving the way for their first-round elimination.
Heung-min had been “crying from anger”, his brother said. “I think you need to have that much desire to win.”