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A Look on the Sonny Side

Son Heung-min may be forced to wear a protective mask at the World Cup, but there’s no masking his joy for the game and his culture—or supporters’ appreciation of him.

Over the summer, before Tottenham Hotspur began its preseason tour through his native South Korea, star forward Son Heung-min briefly looked for a small welcome present to give to each of his teammates upon their arrival. But then, instead, he decided to go all out. For four straight days he feted them with designer sunglasses, custom T-shirts and other swag donated by his lineup of global sponsors, in addition to personally purchased items like ornately decorated sets of chopsticks and spoons. 

“The expectations and pressure only got higher,” Son says. “I didn’t give anything after the fourth day, so the players were coming to me, asking, ‘Any more gifts?’”

Son, who turned 30 just before the tour kicked off, didn’t mind the razzing. Fourteen years ago, when he first left home in the city of Chuncheon to join Hamburg’s youth academy in Germany, Son felt like a total outsider in his new home. 

“I think nobody in Europe really knew about South Korea,” he says. “People [were] not really interested.” 

Showing fellow Spurs players around Seoul and elsewhere this summer, however, he was pleasantly surprised by their eagerness to consume his culture—and not just in the literal sense when he treated the whole roster to Korean barbecue. 

“They are always asking so many questions,” he says. “This makes me really proud.”

South Korea star Son Heung-min

Heung-min suffered a recent facial fracture but will still be leading South Korea at the World Cup.

Clearly the country’s screaming legions of Son lovers, hundreds of whom assembled near baggage claim at Incheon Airport in anticipation of Tottenham’s arrival, feel the same about their national team captain for the 2022 World Cup. According to one projection, more than 12 million people in South Korea, out of a total population of roughly 51 million, count themselves as Spurs supporters. And that is without mentioning the expats who trek to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium during the Premier League calendar. 

“The lads,” Son says, as in his teammates, “even when we play home games, they see all the Korean flags, they joke, ‘Was it you buying all the tickets for the Korean fans?’”

Between his impeccable timing, effortless dribbling and breathtaking two-footed finishing—the ultrarare combination of which last season helped him make history as the first Asian winner of the Premier League Golden Boot, netting 23 goals to share the award with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah—Son is more than worth the price of admission based on skill set alone. (Not for nothing, tickets to Tottenham’s exhibition match against players from the local K League were reportedly being scalped for as much as $3,000.) To watch him is to delight in the expectation that his brilliance might burst forth at any moment, such as the hat trick he hung on Leicester City in just 13 minutes earlier this season, and the staggering solo effort that later earned 2020 Premier League goal of the year honors in which he outraced Burnley’s whole team from penalty box to penalty box as though powered up by a Mario star.

South Korea star Son Heung-min’s signature goal celebration of shaping of his thumbs and forefingers into a camera frame, squinting one eye and snapping a mental picture

Son will hope to flash his trademark goal celebration at the World Cup.

Beyond all that, the man nicknamed Sonny has become one of soccer’s hottest draws because of his contagiously cloudless disposition. This attitude is best seen in his signature goal celebration of shaping of his thumbs and forefingers into a camera frame, squinting one eye and snapping a mental picture of another moment to be savored. But there are plenty of other examples: In summer 2021, Tottenham’s official Facebook account posted a 34-second video titled, “The best of Heung-Min Son laughing.” It now has nearly 750,000 views.

Speaking over Zoom from the London area in early September, fresh off a pre–World Cup shoot with one of his sponsors, Son summarizes the importance of happiness in his game like this: “I want to win with joy. This is really important for me. If I’m really stressed, I don’t feel great, then I’m not playing really well. I need to enjoy this moment.” 

Asked where he believes this urge comes from in the first place, Son goes back to the beginning. 

“I need to laugh, I need to be happy, because without love you don’t get anything,” he says. “I start[ed] to play football because I had love. I had a dream. That’s why I’m standing here today.”

Two decades ago, cohost South Korea defied the odds to reach the semifinals in the 2002 World Cup, the first (and still only) time that an Asian Football Confederation squad had advanced that far. Among those enraptured by the Taeguk Warriors’ upstart run was a 9-year-old Heung-min, who insisted on wearing the same red national team T-shirt to grade school every day. 

“I just remember the streets [were] all red—red shirts, red lights, red fireworks,” Son says. “The country was just incredible. Can’t forget this amazing experience.”

In particular, like so many of his generation, Son was drawn to the squad’s fledgling star player, midfielder Park Ji-sung, who went on to become the first player from the continent to don the captain’s armband for Manchester United and capture championships in the Premier League and Champions League. Tracking Park’s soaring success from back home in Chuncheon, young Heung-min was instilled with a purpose that still resonates today. 

“Between [ages] 10 and 15, he was the biggest idol for me,” Son says. “That makes me feel a big responsibility, because I want to be similar to him, to give a good example to the kids watching.”

Park Ji-sung and Son Heung-min

Park and Son in December 2019 after the latter was presented with the AFC Asian International Player of the Year award.

Son figures to serve a similar role in Qatar, where 28th-ranked South Korea will face Portugal (ninth), Uruguay (14th) and Ghana (61st) in a crowded and seasoned Group H. But he has always handled his leadership duties with the same cheerful collectedness that defines his style. First named Korea’s captain in advance of its 2018 World Cup finale in Russia, following an 0-2-0 start in group play that ensured the team wouldn’t advance to the knockout stage, Son recalls joking to his coach upon receiving the news, “Look, I’ll do anything you need, but don’t blame me when I play like s---.”

The immediate results were far from crappy, with Son striking for one of two extra-time goals to stun and eliminate defending-champion Germany in what Korean media dubbed the “Miracle of Kazan.” 

“One of the greatest memories I have,” he says. 

Any lingering doubts about his ability to perform under the pressure of wearing the armband were hastily vaporized two months later, when Son led Korea past Japan to secure the gold medal at the Asian Games—and, more critically, exemptions from the country’s mandatory 21-month military service for himself and his teammates. (He was still obligated to complete three weeks of military training, doing so in May 2020; according to local news, he achieved a perfect score in the shooting portion of the training and received an award for overall performance.)

Son Heung-min has a protective mask after suffering facial fractures

The Masked Winger: Son will have to wear a protective mask at the World Cup after a recent injury suffered playing for Tottenham.

Whether Son can shoulder enough of a scoring load to lift South Korea to the knockout stage—let alone recapture the magic of 2002—remains to be seen. A fractured eye socket, suffered in a collision during a Champions League tilt against Marseilles on Nov. 1, threatened to wreck the Taeguk Warriors’ already steep prospects. But a hasty surgery put him back on track to join his teammates, albeit in a protective mask, for their opening match against Luis Suárez and Uruguay on Thursday.

And yet, even with Son poised to overtake Park and Ahn Jung-hwan for Korea’s all-time World Cup goals lead—each has three—he rejects the notion he is leading his teammates anywhere. 

“I don’t feel like I’m a leader,” he says. “More a friend. I just want everyone to be happy, to enjoy this moment and to feel comfortable. This is what is really important.”

The rising popularity of Korea’s favorite soccer star has coincided with a broader wave of cultural exports that has swept out of a country the size of Indiana and washed over the planet in recent years, introducing countless people to the ways of K-pop and K-dramas, K-beauty products and kimchi. Still it is hard to think of another single native Korean who possesses greater global reach and celebrity. After all, seven members form the star-dusted musical sensation known as BTS. But there is only one Son.

One person who doesn’t see it quite this way, though, is Son himself. 

“I’m not that famous,” he says. “I think I’m just normal. Normally, when I go back [to Korea], I’ll go shopping, I’ll go to restaurants with my family.” 

Asked whether he is truly able to go about his business unbothered, though, Son laughs. 

“Um, I would say, depends where you go,” he admits. “Sometimes I’m just staying home because I don’t want to make a dangerous situation, because people are running [after me], people are catching [up to me]. Until somebody recognizes me, it’s fine. But if one guy recognizes me, I think it’s going to be a mess.”

Son Heung-min is set to star at the World Cup with South Korea

Son sums up his outlook succinctly: “I need to laugh, I need to be happy, because without love you don’t get anything.”

Son outlines a quieter existence for himself in England, where his hobbies off the pitch include watching Korean dramas (“I can’t choose one [favorite]; they’re all awesome for me”) and scarfing down his mother’s Korean cooking (“It’s the best food in the world”) at the home they share. Otherwise, Son can most often be found going out for meals (“dinner, coffee, sometimes brunch …”) alongside his Tottenham teammates. 

“Without football mates, I don’t think I have a really close friend in the U.K.,” he says. “I’m really, really close with the players. If I have time, I love to spend it with the lads.”

More than embarking on sterling individual runs, or even striking golden goals, Son says his “happiest moments” in soccer stem from the team part of the team sport. 

“It’s a different reason [than] when I was a kid,” he says. “When I was a kid, I just loved to play. When I’m a professional, I’m more competitive. I want to win always. … [But] just being around the changing room, sharing the moments with the team lads, I think is the most fun. because we spend more [time together] than my family. So that’s one of the reasons why I’m always happy to be there, and enjoying every single moment.”

As Park did for him, Son believes that so many others in his homeland enjoy watching him play because of how he has stretched the limits of what is possible for aspiring players there. 

“When I was a kid, I was dreaming about the Golden Boot, playing in the Premier League,” he says. “Then [after achieving both] the people really pay attention to me, what am I doing, where am I going.”

Six hours ahead of Qatar time, eyes all across South Korea are now paying close attention to where their national team can go under its captain’s leadership. The expectations and pressure may only be getting higher, but damned if that is going to stop Sonny from shining bright on his sport’s biggest stage, from leading the way with his laughter, from gleefully sharing his many gifts with the world.

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