Son Heung-min still willingly leads Tottenham Hotspur and Asian football like no other

South Korean forward’s ambition to leave a lasting legacy is matched by his desire to be a peerless role model for fans

Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min has to juggle between leading South Korea against Thailand in the World Cup qualifiers (left) and fielding questions from the writer just 36 hours later. (PHOTOS: Getty Images/Yahoo News Singapore)
Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min has to juggle between leading South Korea against Thailand in the World Cup qualifiers (left) and fielding questions from the writer just 36 hours later. (PHOTOS: Getty Images/Yahoo News Singapore)

Reporting from London

SON Heung-min is the calm in the eye of his own storm. He breezes into the room and things swirl around him: people, chairs, cameras, lights and all other movable objects are suddenly adjusted and repositioned to face him. He pulls focus, effortlessly. The noisiest corner of Tottenham Hotspur’s training complex has been quietened by its silent leader.

Without saying the word, Son already owns the room. As ever, he leads by unrivalled example. He knows all eyes are on him, as Tottenham’s talisman, as South Korea’s icon-in-residence, as Asian football’s spiritual leader and as AIA Singapore’s brand ambassador, which is the reason for our meeting on a rainy spring morning ahead of Spurs’ English Premier League clash against Luton Town. He never forgets his position. More impressively, he doesn’t want to.

Rather than shy away from his considerable responsibilities, he welcomes them. They propel him. Being a role model for impressionable Asian kids is a duty he takes seriously.

“Yeah definitely. If everybody is talking about me in Asian football, it’s a great feeling, so be a good example,” he tells Yahoo Southeast Asia. “Take the responsibility because everybody is watching what you do, what you wear, what hairstyle you have, everyone is looking at you. So I don’t want to be that guy, doing the silly things in front of young Asian footballers. When kids look at me, I want to be the perfect guy, the perfect footballer and also the perfect human being.”

Ordinarily, it’d be hard to acknowledge a quest for perfection without sounding arrogant or conceited, but the South Korean really isn’t either. He’s just a filial football son still trying to do right by his family, culture, country and football club.

“We should be grateful because we are living the dream,” he says. “I do it because I love it. I love being in this position as a footballer. I’m so grateful to be here.”

That gratitude remains Son’s finest attribute. It allows the 31-year-old to score for South Korea against Thailand in a World Cup qualifier, jump on a plane, arrive at Tottenham’s training ground 36 hours later, apologise for keeping people waiting – he wasn’t – before politely asking if he can keep his cup of coffee for our chat. It’s that humility that persuades a merry band of South Korean fanatics to wait outside the training ground in the rain, in the hope that their hero might pull over.

Because Son always stops. Just as he was the only Tottenham player to stop in the mixed zone of the National Stadium after Spurs' pre-season friendly against the Lion City Sailors. Being a role model isn’t a chore. It’s a vocation. After almost a decade with Spurs and 15 years with South Korea, Son treats his iconic status like a museum exhibit, to be admired by millions, but always handled with care.

It only takes one thing to break the success, just one day to make a wrong decision,” he says. “So I try to be very disciplined. But sometimes it’s really hard, because I’m still young.”

Ping-pong gate was a surreal example of that devotion to duty. During the Asian Cup, there was a minor altercation with team-mate Lee Kang-in over a friendly table tennis game. In any other national camp, it’s a non-story. In Son’s camp, it’s reason enough to hold a face-to-face meeting between the two players and issue a lengthy apology from Kang-in. To an outsider, the public handwringing wasn’t necessary, but Son isn’t wired that way. In an era of agent-drafted statements, his honesty is refreshing, along with a frank appraisal of his status.

“Everyone is looking at me, in my country, in my club, also right now,” he laughs, addressing the many people in the room, hanging on his every word. “Everyone is listening to what I’m saying. I want to lead a good example.”

Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou (left) and forward Son Heung-Min at the English Premier League match against Manchester City at Etihad Stadium.
Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou (left) and forward Son Heung-Min at the English Premier League match against Manchester City at Etihad Stadium. (PHOTO: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)

Shouldering responsibility in the Ange Postecoglou era

In his relentless pursuit of excellence, Son has found a kindred spirit in Ange Postecoglou. The Tottenham manager knows how to exploit the tenacity of a player who once performed keepy-uppies for three hours as a 10-year-old, not allowing the ball to touch the ground, even when bloodshot eyes had him literally seeing red. Ange-Ball needs that physical defiance, if Spurs are going to qualify for the Champions League.

“Ange has brought more passion and desire in the way he wants us to play. He gives us such positive energy,” Son says. “Obviously, the season is not done yet, but the style of play has changed a lot and impacted us very positively...

"Look, we want to play Champions League next season, but there is no guarantee... For me, every game is a goal to improve our playing style and performance.”

Despite Son's Asian Cup absence in January, he already has 14 English Premier League goals for the season, making it 117 in total (along with 60 assists), as Tottenham move convincingly into the Son era. At times, the skittering forward can look like he’s playing the No.9 and No.10 roles in the same game, whilst occasionally moonlighting as an inverted winger. The Ange-Ball plan always had a dominant Son in mind, with able support from James Maddison.

“It was a sad moment when James was injured for almost three months and then I went off to the Asian Cup, so we missed almost four months but the connection has been really good,” Son says. “We understand football in the same way. He’s always looking for me, always trying to find me.”

It’s a common theme. Looking for Son on the pitch. Looking to Son from the dugout. Looking up to Son from Asia. The demands on his time and talent haven’t changed, but nor has his temperament. Remarkably, he hasn’t deviated from the path followed by that 10-year-old, keepy-uppy kid, refusing to let the ball drop. But then, it’s a pretty decent path to follow.

“When I was nine, 10, 11, I fell in love with football,” he says. “When you wake up, the first thing on your mind has to be football. I was like that then. And I’m still like that now. Start with football. End with football. You have to fall in love with the game, and enjoy every single situation, day by day, and then improve your game. Be positive. Play with a smile on your face.”

And Son shakes hands and moves onto the next interview, with a smile on his face, as always, the peerless role model. The ambition still burns, but so does the eagerness to make a genuine, positive difference to a community that reveres him. Spurs and Asian football are still so lucky to have him.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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