In 2009, South Korean midfielder, Park Ji Sung became the first Asian player to feature in a Champion’s League final when Manchester United took on Barcelona.
For the Asian footballing community, it was seen as a defining moment for the East in global sports.
Park was the first Asian footballer to have won the UEFA Champions League, to play in a UEFA Champions League final, as well as the first Asian to have won the FIFA Club World Cup.
Since then, however, Asia still hasn’t experienced the same rapid progression of football as in the other continents.
Today, Europe is predominantly where most of the world’s best players come from while in the Americas, some of the game’s finest talent have emerged from the usual suspects in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. Africa is not far off either as they have managed to produce top talent in recent years – Cameroon, Egypt, Ivory Coast, but Asia seems to be a foot behind all the other continents.
“They see them as dedicated, reliable, hard-working, respectful of older people, and never a problem for a coach.” Johannes Graf Strachwitz, one of the founders of Apertura Sports, a player management agency in Germany, had to say about the stereotypical perceptions of Asian footballers. The norms that originate from Asia culture perpetuate this idea of Asian players being humble and loyal employees.
Because of these traits, the players don’t usually make the headlines as they aren’t considered superstars. While it is not a bad thing to be seen this way, these stigma constrict Asian players to being a run-of-the-mill player in the eyes of the media. By putting them out of the spotlight, it makes it harder for them to reach the levels of prominence of European, American, and African players.
While the majority of Asian footballers have been poorly represented in the past few years, one man has risen through the ranks and stepped up as the new face of Asian football. He has become arguably one of the most famous Asian players in the world and has single-handedly changed the perception of Asian footballers. His name is none other than Son Heung-Min.
Even after signing as a professional with Hamburg, Son’s father, a former professional player himself, would still put him through his paces from time to time. While others would be off enjoying themselves, Son was the one working tirelessly to improve himself as a player.
“When I was 10 or 12, he came in to coach my school team and we were training, 15 or 20 players. The programme was for us all to keep the balls up for 40 minutes. When someone dropped the ball, my father would not say anything.
“But as soon as I dropped it, he made us all start over from the beginning. The players understood, because I was his son and, yeah, it was tough. But when you think about it now, this was the right way,” said Son in an interview.
The establishment of dominance and strict rule of Asian parents is a traditional method in the culture of Asian families. Many would remember Amy Chua’s 2011 memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother which encapsulated the demands of an ultra-strict parenting style.
Regardless, that isn’t what made him famous.
The best quality that Son possesses would have to be his rapturous dribbling ability that terrorizes the defenders in his path and also his shooting skills as he is comfortable on the ball with both feet.
His nickname, “Sonny”, was adapted from the character ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ because of his searing pace and this makes him an important attacking outlet for Spurs as they tend to counter-attack.
In tandem with the squad’s most lethal finisher, Harry Kane, and supported by their creative play-maker, Christian Eriksen, Spurs’ offensive unit is lethal from all angles.
Former Tottenham captain and club legend, Gary Mabbutt, added about Son’s ability: “As soon as he gets the ball, you’re expecting something to happen. He’s a very difficult opponent to play against. If you’re marking a player who you know is left-footed, you know to show him onto his weaker foot. With someone like Son, you can’t show him anywhere, because he can go both ways.”
As is the case with most Asian players, it is not easy to be considered as a prominent squad member in a team that plays at the highest level.
Shinji Kagawa was frozen out of Dortmund in his return only to be loaned out to Besiktas.
Shinji Okazaki plays second fiddle on Leicester City to Jamie Vardy.
Takuma Asano has not made a single appearance for Arsenal.
Ki Sung Yung, once dubbed the Asian Steven Gerrard, struggles to hold a place on the Newcastle first team.
Son’s role on the team suggests that he has transcended Asian football. He is the deputy- if not the main player for the Spurs.
Tottenham have evidently struggled in his absence. When the Asian Cup commenced, Tottenham faced a dismal run of form without their star as they got knocked out of both the League Cup and the FA Cup.
When he returned, Tottenham were back to their winning ways as he scored the equalizer in his first game back against Watford and they went on to win the game 2-1.
On the pitch, Son has a long and growing list of accolades from this Premier League season alone. He scored the first goal at the New White Hart Lane, was named the London Premier League 2019 Player of the Year, and received Tottenham’s 2018/19 Player of the Season and Goal of the Season awards.
The Korea National Team captain is always one to look out for when playing against Tottenham and more often than not, he is featured in publicity materials and advertisements for the club. This suggests that there is a consensus that Son is one of their best players and a fan-favourite at the club.
It comes as no surprise that Son is treated like a hero after an impressive season scoring 20 goals and assisting seven in all competitions. He has also been rated as one of their most consistent performers in all competitions and can be counted on to perform when called to step up.
When Kane was out injured, Son took over the role as Spurs’ front-man and they won all their games in which he featured in.
Mauricio Pochettino believes that Son is a top-quality player and bears some similarity to Messi because of his intelligence in his movement and play.
“The most important thing is how you run and how you affect the game and the capacity and quality. It’s not about distance. It’s like if you say Messi ran a lot of distance. No, but in the distance, he applied the pace, or how powerful he is in the moment which made the difference. Sonny is similar, the quality is top because he has a lot of quality in his movement,” said the manager.
In that sense, Son does not just work hard, but he works smart, and that is what sets him apart from characteristically mundane Asian players.
Breaking down barriers for Asian players through his achievements, Son has proven to the entire world that Asians can be just as successful as anyone else in football.
Removing the social stigma globally was no easy feat, but a Korean accomplished that in what looked like just months. Son is no ordinary player, he is the pride of Asia.Leave a comment