Son Heung-Min, South Korea's modest football superstar

Son is sparkling for Tottenham with Harry Kane but is staying humble despite winning The Best Footballer in Asia award for the fourth consecutive year.

By Ken Browne
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

He's known as one of the nicest guys in the game, but Son Heung-Min has a killer instinct on the pitch.

"Kill them with success then bury them with a smile," goes one of Usain Bolt's most famous phrases, and that's the way Son goes about his business too.

On Monday (4 January) the 28-year-old was named The Best Footballer in Asia for the fourth year in a row, and there's simply no stopping him right now.

His sixth season at Tottenham is turning out to be his best yet: In three previous campaigns he scored 12 goals or fewer in the Premier League, this season he's bagged 12 already - in 16 games.

On 2nd January 2021 he scored his 100th goal for Spurs against Leeds.

Son's connection with Harry Kane is electric and that partnership has lit up the league, putting Tottenham among the contenders to lift the Premier League title under manager Jose Mourinho.

The club hasn't won the domestic league since 1961 but this year could be their best chance yet.

And after the Premier League season finishes, his legion of South Korean fans will be dreaming of seeing their biggest star lead the team to the podium at the Tokyo Games this summer.

Son says BTS are the biggest stars

Son is a global football superstar but in Korea he has megastar status, anything he appears on sells out, and every goal he scores is celebrated with hysteria.

Tottenham's training ground at Enfield is always besieged by South Koreans wearing Son No.7 shirts looking for an autograph, and Son almost always obliges.

This national hero can be seen signing autographs and having a few words with these football pilgrims who have come such a long way to see him play.

In an interview with Britain's Sky Sports over Christmas he was asked what it is like being one of the most famous people in his country, and, ever humble, he said:.

"I don't know, because I am not! I think BTS would be up there.

"Obviously I think they're massive, massive, and I'm a big fan of theirs as well."

BTS, or the 'Bangtan Boys', are a South Korean boyband sensation that has swept the world counting fans in their billions.

They became the became the fastest group since The Beatles to record four number-one albums in the United States, and they did it in less than two years.

Asked to sing one of their songs in the interview, Son declines.

"No, I can't sing," he laughs.

The Son Heung-Min-Harry Kane show

Son sticks to what he's good at, playing football and delighting Tottenham and South Korea fans.

The Kane-Son Son-Kane combination has been unstoppable this season, when Kane assisted Son to score that 100th goal against Leeds it was the 13th time the two combined this season.

That equalled the English record for goal combinations between two players set by Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton at Blackburn in 1994-95.

After Leeds there were still 22 games remaining, so there's little doubt that record will fall and this double-act will set the bar high for future combinations.

In their sixth season together the relationship has become almost telepathic, and Son has benefitted from Kane's new role in the team.

The English number nine has become a much more complete player this season, dropping deep, dragging the centre-back with him and leaving space for speedy Son to race in behind.

"It's all about Harry" - Son Hueng Min

Kane has become to Spurs what Karim Benzema is to Real Madrid - a nine-and-a-half playing both the number 9 and number 10 roles - and the main benefactor is Son Hueng-Min.

Son, typically, says all the praise should go to Kane.

"I think it's not about me, it's all about Harry... He's been incredible, look at what he's doing for the team.

"It's a big honour to play with him and I really enjoy playing with him and it's been six years now playing together with him and we are understanding very very well, we know what we do.

"Harry is playing more deep and I like to run to the space, if Harry drops then obviously the centre-back has to drop because he's too dangerous.

"It's all about Harry that's what I think, it's very important that I play with him and obviously we're talking about Harry and me but the other guys are doing an amazing job as well."

Son wants to stay at Tottenham "for life" - Mourinho

There was even better news in December for Spurs fans when the manager said that the South Korean superstar wants to stay in London for the rest of his career.

Son's current deal at Tottenham runs out in 2023, but Mourinho said that, despite of the uncertainty cause by Covid-19 and losses at football clubs because of empty stadiums, he's confident that Son will stay.

"How can you sign a new contract with a player? You don't know what is going to happen next season," Mourinho said in a press conference ahead of their top of the table clash with Liverpool in mid-December.

"You don't know if you can offer the player a better contract than they have now. It's a very strange moment.

“I just trust Sonny and Daniel Levy.

"I know that both want him to stay, if possible, for life, if possible until the end of the career.

"I see Sonny signing a new contract here, but I don't press for something to happen now because probably it's not the right moment.”

That's very good news indeed when you consider reports that both Real Madrid and Barcelona are interested in bringing Son to Spain.

Son at Rio 2016

Son Heung-Min played at Rio 2016, before the tournament he was excited by the chance to play at an Olympics.

"Why not [play]?" He told ESPN in May 2016.

"It's a very nice tournament and competition and every player wants to go to play there. I've played in the World Cup and Asian Cup and I haven't played in the Olympics. We'll see what happens."

It happened. Son played, he scored in an 8-0 rout of Fiji, and again against Germany in a 3-3 draw as South Korea topped Group C, also defeating Mexico by a single goal.

But Son was devastated when they lost 1-0 to Honduras in their quarter final, missing a couple of key chances.

He “cried all day long” South Korea coach Shin Tae-Yong later revealed afterwards, and “didn’t even eat” after the match.

“After the Olympics I was very upset. I was really down, because I played for my country and I wanted to get some medals for my country," Son later said.

Neymar would lead Brazil to gold at home, when South Korea had long left the tournament.

But a huge incentive for Son in Rio was that had South Korea won a medal of any colour, the players would have been excused from the country’s mandatory 21-month military service, which all able-bodied males must begin before they turn 28.

Son at Tokyo 2020 in 2021?

Luckily, redemption was right around the corner.

Son led South Korea to victory at the 2018 Asian Games football tournament, the entire team securing an exemption from military service.

The Tottenham man set up both goals in a 2-1 victory over Japan in the final.

In April 2020 he completed his three-four week mandatory military service, telling Sky Sports "it was a good experience, I met a lot of kids, a lot of these new guys and I will never forget this memory."

So after disappointment in Rio and joy in Jakarta, is Son ready for another tilt at the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer?

South Korea have qualified for the Tokyo Games by winning the AFC U23 Championship in January 2020, and Son could be one of the three overage players allowed in the team.

In the midst of a global pandemic and Premier League football going ahead where it can, Son is focussed on the job at hand right now.

But he is team captain, and loves playing for his country, and while he has not communicated a decision about the Olympics yet, hopes are high that he'll play in Tokyo.

If he stays fit and decides to play at a second straight Games, with the form he's in it would be a huge boost for South Korea and bring joy to his millions of fans worldwide.