South Korea fans hope Son Heung-Min's Tottenham form carries over
When an exhausted Son Heung-Min left the White Hart Lane pitch on Sunday in the final seconds of a great performance and a 2-0 win over the previously perfect Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur fans rose to give the in-form South Korean a serious standing ovation.
The reaction back home was just as positive though tinged with concern that 96 hours later, Son, having flown thousands of miles, would be playing just outside Seoul in a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier against Qatar on Oct. 6. He had been missed in the previous test on the road to Russia on Sept. 6, a 0-0 draw with Syria, after being allowed to head back to England early.
This was done to repay Spurs for letting the forward go to the Olympics, which ended in tears and quarterfinal disappointment in a loss to Honduras, in the summer despite being under no FIFA obligation to do so. It was also to help the 24-year-old settle at the club he joined from Bayer Leverkusen in August 2015.
For Son and Spurs, September could not have gone any better. A brace against Stoke City and then another versus Middlesbrough sandwiched a fine performance against Sunderland. Throw in the only goal of the Champions League game at CSKA Moscow last Tuesday and another top performance against Manchester City and Son is the new darling of N17.
For Son and South Korea, September was mixed. He was lively but failed to score in a 3-2 win over China on the first day of the month. In his absence five days later, Korea struggled against a Syria that may not qualify for the World Cup but would win any time-wasting tournament. It was a hugely frustrating night that has put pressure on the 2002 World Cup semifinalists with two huge games in five days against the aforementioned Qatar and then Iran in Tehran on Oct. 11.
It's the perfect time then for one of the most in-form players in the world to shine for his country. It has been thus for a large part of Son's international career. He has progressed from Hamburg to Bayer Leverkusen to Spurs, but his Taeguk Warriors career, about to reach its 50-cap milestone, has been more stop and start. There have been plenty of flashes of class but -- often through no fault of his own with coaches, formations, travel, teammates and how Asian opposition often play against Korea all factors -- fans at home have rarely seen the kind of performances Spurs supporters have been enjoying of late. Most of his best moments for his country have also come overseas.
In March 2013, he came off the bench to score a 96th minute winner against Qatar to keep South Korea on track to qualify for the World Cup. Now, said pundits, was the time for the-then Bundesliga star to find his role for his country. He was one of Korea's better players in Brazil, albeit not the biggest of compliments, yet even before the 2015 Asian Cup, coach Uli Stielike was openly wondering how best to use the fast forward.
Last week, Stielike was again answering questions about his star player and after praising his English performances, then criticised his attitude. "As many people have already seen from the stands or on television, I think his behaviour away from the field can be problematic. 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 said. "All players have to be careful."
Stielike is not one to play games or use psychological tricks to get players to perform. A straight-talker who usually says what he thinks, the former Real Madrid man was not impressed with Son's reaction to being subbed off late in the game against China on Sept. 1, when he kicked a water bottle in frustration. A withdrawal against Spain in June resulted in a towel being thrown.
It may not seem like much, but it makes headlines in a country where substituted players turn back to their teammates still playing and bow, then sit down quietly afterward. Public displays of frustration off the pitch are rare. Son, who said upon arrival in Seoul on Monday that he accepted the criticism, should be full of confidence this time instead of frustration. "His form gives all of us a lift," said teammate Kim Shin-Wook, just the latest back home to be asked about the Spurs star.
The poor performance against Syria and the dropping of two points have seen a little doubt creep in to a team that is trying to qualify for a ninth successive World Cup. Stielike admitted this week that he has experienced real criticism for the first time since arriving two years ago. There were vague rumours in September that the German could be replaced by former Spurs boss Christian Gross.
Qatar have already made the change after two straight defeats with Jorge Fossati reinstated. Another defeat for the 2022 hosts almost certainly ends hopes of finishing in the top two spots of the six-team group and automatic qualification for 2018. Anything less than three points for Korea will really get nerves jangling ahead of a trip to Iran, where the Taeguk Warriors have never won.
Given his recent exploits, it all leads to greater expectation and pressure on the shoulders of "Sonaldo." Spurs fans will be hoping that he doesn't get injured. Those in Korea will be looking for a lot more.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.