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Next
 Posted by John Duerden
Jul 7, 2014

South Korea's favourite Son

South Korea coach Hong Myung-Bo addresses the media following their 1-0 defeat against Belgium.

There were rumours at the 2002 World Cup that South Korea's young star Lee Chun-soo dyed his hair blond to make it easier for European scouts to pick him out. Perhaps it worked, as he was soon on his way to La Liga even if the highlights on his head outshone anything on the pitch.

A few weeks before Brazil, Son Heung-min did the same, though surely not for the same supposed reason; he is the kind of player who has never had a problem when it comes to standing out.

- Assessment: South Korea listless
- Duerden: 10 reasons why Asia failed at the World Cup
- The Toe Poke: Angry fans pelt South Korea players with toffees

In what was a hugely disappointing World Cup for South Korea, Son was the one bright spot, and it had nothing to do with his hair. The 21-year-old was perhaps the sole Taeguk Warrior who left Brazil with his reputation enhanced, and it was already pretty good.

Unlike Lee 12 years ago, Son already has had his big European move. He has never played a club game outside the continent after heading to Hamburg as a 16-year-old.

Almost as fast as Germany's famed Inter City Express, the club by the North Sea worked on trying to coax ice-like levels of reliability, consistency and efficiency out of the jet-heeled youngster.

Son Heung-min was one of the few South Korean players who left Brazil with his reputation enhanced.

Each of his three seasons was better than the last, and in the summer of 2013, the "Sonsation" was turning down Borussia Dortmund and remaining unmoved by interest from Liverpool and Chelsea to join Bayer Leverkusen for a fee of 10 million euros.

Despite being easily his homeland's most expensive player, he wasn't at the time really settled into the national team, and even in a vital qualifier against Qatar in March 2013, in which he scored a last-minute winner, he came on as a substitute.

Son started to get more starts in a familiar role on the left side of attack just behind the striker under new coach Hong Myung-bo, and goals in the buildup against Haiti, Mali and Greece suggested that he was ready for June and Group H.

He was, but his teammates and coach seemed to be less so. In the first game against Russia, the youngster, making his debut on the global stage, was visibly nervous, but at least he was visible.

His direct runs caused problems for the Russian defence and were sights familiar to all fans of the Bundesliga, even if the erratic shooting from his favoured edge-of-the-area range was not. Son faded a little in the second half, but there was confidence in the Korean camp that he would come into his own against Algeria.

Son Heung-min constantly ran at the Algerian defence -- completing a tournament high of nine successful dribbles.

Once again, he did, but he was on his own too much. The first half was as bad as it could have been for Korea. The defence fell apart and there seemed to be no way back from 3-0 down at halftime. During the game, Son completed a tournament high of nine successful dribbles, demonstrating his excellence in that regard as much as the fact that he had little help from the rest of Asia's most successful World Cup team.

And there was also his goal against the North Africans. If he meant to control a long ball on his back, then it was a strike of genius. If not, then it was still pretty good as his feint left not only had the defence moving in the wrong direction but those tens of thousands watching in the streets of Algiers.

Before they realised their mistake, Son, who had gone the other way, had scored. It started a momentum that suggested Korea could complete an unlikely comeback. Another defensive lapse put paid to that dream, as well as hopes of the second round.

At full time, a photo of Son, sank to his haunches with his head in his hands in the middle of a group of white-shirted opponents, did the rounds in Korea. Influential television commentator Seo Hyung-wook declared that the youngster deserved to stand up as he had done everything he could for his country.

Devastated: Son Heung-min after the Algeria loss.

Another iconic image came when elimination was confirmed against Belgium, after which Hong tried to console his star attacker, who was crying like a baby -- in football terms, he almost still is.

Yet Son came of age in Brazil, in international terms, at least. The youngest player in a youthful team, Son was the best Korea had to offer, even if it was not the Korea that fans had hoped to see.

This wasn't a fast and youthful team tearing forward through older and slower European opposition, but a cautious, slow and wide-open team looking leaderless and lethargic. Had other, more experienced, attackers performed like Son, then it could all have been very different.

Son was the one who managed to play his own game, to an extent. Fans at home had seen the dribbles and explosive shots in the Bundesliga but hadn't seen much of the same in the national shirt.

All team assessments

Group Stage: Australia | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Cameroon | Croatia | Ecuador | England | Ghana | Honduras | Italy | Iran
Ivory Coast Japan | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain
Round of 16: Algeria | Chile | Greece | Mexico
Nigeria | Switzerland | Uruguay | United States
Quarterfinals: Colombia | France | Belgium | Costa Rica
Semifinals: Brazil | Netherlands
Finalists: Argentina
Winners: Germany

Whatever happens next for Korea, and the fallout from the exit in the group stage has yet to settle in Seoul, Son is now the main man in attack.

His first season with Leverkusen was a little stop and start, just like the team itself, and the April sacking of coach Sami Hyypia did not help.

Still, 10 goals was a decent return, and the campaign ended on a high with Son getting the vital strike against Werder Bremen that gave Leverkusen the three points as well as the Bundesliga's final Champions League spot.

It is in that competition that he needs to shine next season. He admitted to local media at being a little overawed at playing against Manchester United in the debut game in the tournament last season. Leverkusen recovered, to an extent, to get to the second round, but it was not a run to remember from the team, and not many runs to remember from the player.

With the departures of influential teammates such as Sidney Sam and Emre Can, there will be more pressure and responsibility on the Korean's shoulders. The World Cup showed that he can handle it and he belongs on the biggest stages.

The Bundesliga is already a happy hunting ground, and if he can build on Brazil to perform to his best in the Champions League, Son Heung-min, blonde, brown or whatever, is going to be catching plenty of eyes in the new European season.