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The Prodigal Son

Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is tearing up the Premier League

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Getty Images

As it turns out, the only player who could stop the Premier League’s hottest forward from scoring is on his own team.

Just over an hour into Sunday’s match between the Premier League’s top two teams, Tottenham, already up 2–0 over first-place Manchester City, were awarded a penalty.

Based on recent performances, Spurs fans might have expected the kick to be taken by South Korean forward Son Heung-min, he of the five-goals-in-three-games streak. Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino had quipped that Son was “on fire” heading into this match, and he had already been involved in both Spurs goals of the day.

Son definitely thought he should be taking the penalty, too — but instead, it was Argentine midfielder Erik Lamela who grabbed the ball and brushed aside Son’s petulant attempt to wrestle it away. Lamela missed, but Tottenham won — the two teammates hugged at the whistle, and afterward Pochettino played down the brief scuffle: “That’s always better than nobody wanting the ball.”

No one wanted it more than Son in Tottenham’s win. It was a telling moment for a player who represents a new kind of Korean footballer. Son is not only stereotypically industrious and hard-working, but he’s also a confident, even brazen, shooter — and unafraid, as Lamela found out, to thrust himself in the middle of the action. Manchester City were put on notice from the start: Deployed down the center instead of his usual left wing, Son was impossible to miss. If he wasn’t nutmegging fullbacks and firing off dangerous shots, he was relentlessly chasing down City’s back line to regain possession. Son’s disruptive presence in the box helped pressure City into an early own goal and he later feathered a through ball for Dele Alli’s first-half tally.

Son left to a standing ovation from the home crowd when he was subbed in the 90th minute. The victory is a signature win for Spurs, and puts them firmly in this season’s title race.

Sunday was the biggest stage Son has ever played on in his club career, and he delivered. In his second season in England, after five years in the German Bundesliga, he has begun to live up to his £22 million price tag — the highest fee ever paid for an Asian footballer. The 24-year-old forward is all about high volume and high activity — he was among the league leaders in dribbles, take-ons, and shots heading into Sunday — with equal parts persistence and panache. Son is fast, instinctive, and predatory. Where other attackers dawdle, he is unfailingly direct, pouncing on opportunities to force defenders into worried retreat. Give him an invitation to shoot, and he will gladly oblige — with either foot, from any distance. “Bold and daring, this is how I like to try to play,” said Son upon his Tottenham introduction last summer. It’s as if Pochettino built him in a Spurs lab.

German football legend Franz Beckenbauer once said of Son: “He not only scores goals, but also makes beautiful goals.” (Middlesbrough recently bore witness.) In the absence of injured striker Harry Kane, Son has emerged from a reserve role to become Spurs’ main weapon.

For Korean soccer, Son’s star turn is a breakthrough. He is far and away Korea’s most exciting, creative player today — and, with all due respect to Cha Bum-kun, possibly of all time. It is, however, Son’s Korean passport that could cut his European career short.

Son turned 10 in the magical summer that South Korea announced itself to the footballing world, when the national side made a highly improbable run to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup. At the time, all but two of the 23 players on the Korean national team played professionally in Asia (read: in total anonymity). But after Korea’s fourth-place finish, its best players soon became desirable to European clubs. All of a sudden, Korea was exporting soccer talent.

The most celebrated of the ’02 alums was the midfielder Park Ji-sung, who at age 22 followed ex-Korea manager Guus Hiddink to PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and then went on to have a decorated seven-year stint with Manchester United. Not only was Park the archetypal Korean player of his generation — selfless and dogged, among other mildly patronizing adjectives — but also, in his European glory, an outlier. The vast majority of his peers were failures in Europe, landing overseas in their 20s and struggling to adapt to life both on and off the pitch.

By the time Son came of age, Park had planted the flag for Korean soccer on the continent and the Korea Football Association began to encourage younger players to explore their options abroad. (Son has called Park an “inspiration.”) But while some of his Korean predecessors seemed content just to get a taste of European life before returning to the K League (Lee Dong-gook springs to mind), Son was always driven, in his words, “to play against the best players and the best teams.” From the moment he departed the FC Seoul youth academy for Germany as a 16-year-old, his career has been led by that ambition: At 18, he became Hamburg’s youngest-ever goal scorer; two seasons later, he moved to Bayer Leverkusen for the chance to play in the Champions League; 27 mostly spectacular goals after that, he joined an exciting, ascendant Tottenham team.

Son’s first year in the Premier League was uneven and injury-plagued as he struggled to break into the Spurs side; he was reportedly on the verge of leaving the club in the summer, but Pochettino resisted. Now, in only 360 minutes of playing time in the league, he has already matched his four-goal haul from last season.

Of the eight Korean internationals playing in Europe’s top four leagues — three in the Premier League, and five in the Bundesliga — Son is the breakout star. Notwithstanding his talent and well-drilled technical prowess (his ex-pro father heads a soccer academy), Son has benefited immeasurably from his footballing education abroad. When he left the Bundesliga, he was nearly fluent in German; in just over a season in England, “Sonny” has already been branded by teammates as Tottenham’s funniest player (check the team’s YouTube channel for more proof). Son, Korean football’s new avatar, has spent a third of his life in Europe. For ’90s babies like Son and the two Korean “prodigies” in Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, the journey is the destination.

As Son and a new generation of Korean players cut their teeth in high-profile European leagues, the South Korean national team has floundered. After a disappointing early exit in the 2014 World Cup, they fell to no. 69 in the FIFA World Rankings, their lowest ranking since the table was introduced in 1992 (they’re currently no. 47). The 2002 team was characterized by a collective will; the overseas stars of the current team, including Son and Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-yueng, have inevitably developed more individualistic qualities — the kind that might compel one to try to steal the ball off of a teammate to take a penalty.

Those tendencies aren’t easy to leave behind in Europe. After reacting angrily to being subbed in a World Cup qualifier against China in September, Son was reprimanded by Uli Stielike, the German coach of South Korea. “Unless he gets his act together and changes his attitude, I will have to think about the rest of the team as the coach,” Stielike was quoted as saying. He added, ominously: “All players have to be careful.”

It isn’t only his national coach that Son needs to worry about. Further complicating matters, as is the case with all Korean-born athletes, is the camouflaged elephant in the room. With mandatory military service looming in the distance — Son is required by law to enlist for at least 21 months by the time he turns 28 in four years — his professional livelihood is actually dependent on the national team’s success. Korean athletes who win any medal in the Olympics or a gold in the Asian Games can earn exemptions from conscription. (MLB stars Shin-Soo Choo and Jung Ho Kang earned theirs as part of the 2010 Asian Games winners in baseball.) The Korean government has also doled out one-time exceptions: The entire 2002 World Cup squad was excused, as was the third-place 2006 World Baseball Classic team.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The cruel irony is this: Had Son not been so focused on his European career, he might already be exempt. He turned down a chance to play for the bronze-winning 2012 Olympic squad so as not to disrupt his training for Hamburg. Two years later, Leverkusen were loath to allow their rising star to play in the 2014 Asian Games, where the Korean team won gold. Son finally did represent his country with a chance to gain an exemption in the Rio Olympics this past summer; the Koreans sputtered out medal-less in the quarterfinals.

As it stands, Son has only two tournaments left to grab a medal — the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and, cutting it extremely close, possibly the 2020 Tokyo Games — and thus avoid having his career derailed in its prime. (We’ll go ahead and assume that Korea will not make the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup.) Should Son fail, he could seek a special overseas deferment — as did former Arsenal bust Park Chu-young when he was granted a 10-year postponement in 2012 — but he’d then risk indelibly harming his reputation back home. Intense public criticism compelled Park to face the media and apologize. (Later that summer, all was rendered moot when he won bronze in London.)

The bigger Son gets, the more his pending conscription will become a story. It’s already being discussed in the English tabloids, some of whom are even forecasting that next year’s Korean presidential race could play a factor — potential candidate Nam Kyung-pil has spoken in favor of an all-volunteer military. (For their part on this issue, Korean media are mostly reporting on how closely the English media are covering it.) Son himself has stayed mum about the timing of his potential military service, but the questions will surely keep coming.

Four years is a long time; in football, it’s an eternity. Son is famously streaky. Still, here in the present, with tens of thousands of Spurs fans applauding him off the pitch and countless more around the world being introduced to him with each eye-opening goal, it’s hard to imagine Son serving his country any better than he is right now.