Tottenham star Heung-min Son still heeding his dad’s advice to fulfil his football dream

Evening Standard
Star man | Heung-min Son: Carl Fox
Star man | Heung-min Son: Carl Fox

After every match he plays, Heung-min Son analyses his performance in minute detail with the man he calls his coach, his friend and his teacher.

That man is not Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, but Son’s father, Woong-jung Son. Woong-jung was a professional himself - an attacker like his boy - before injury halted his career in 1990, at the age of 28. Since then, he has set his mind to helping Son achieve the dreams that he could not.

Son lives with his parents in an apartment in Barnet, close to Tottenham’s training ground in Enfield. From early childhood, Woong-jung taught him the importance of using his left foot as well as his right. Son repeated shooting and passing drills and today he even believes that he strikes the ball better with his left foot than his right.

Woong-jung (below) watched compatriot Cha Bum-Kun, possibly the finest Asian player of all time, playing in the Bundesliga for Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen and dreamed of emulating him. The injury cut short those ambitions; instead, Son realised them, moving to Germany at 16 and playing impressively for Hamburg and Leverkusen before joining Tottenham in 2015.

“He is my friend, my teacher, my coach and he can still be my dad outside football,” said Son. “I can still remember when he asked me for the first time, as a child in South Korea, whether I really wanted to have a career in football.

“Football is in my blood. I learned to walk, and then I saw a ball and just kicked it. I wasn’t interested in computer games or playing with toy cars, just football - and I was 100 per cent sure I wanted to play professionally.

“He was happy but he said: ‘Are you sure? It is very tough. Do you understand?’ He told me how difficult it would be, mentally and physically. I said it didn’t matter. I knew I could play football and make everyone happy. He is very proud of me, and without him I wouldn’t be here.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

“He gave me my attitude, helped me with so many things. He still lives with me and comes to every home game. After the matches we talk about certain bad situations, some positive things, and what I can do better.

“When he was playing, the Bundesliga was more popular in South Korea than English football. He would watch the games and it was his dream to play there.

“So when I started to play in Germany, he would always say: ‘This is our dream, to play in Europe.’ He still does. I am still not the best player but I want to fulfil his dream of playing here.”

Despite protesting that he is “not famous”, Son is perhaps the world’s best Asian footballer and is a superstar in South Korea, where he often needs to hide his identity when he goes out with friends or family.

He neither courts nor shuns the attention of his countrymen, but the adulation has stunned team-mates. Robbie Kruse, a former colleague at Leverkusen, said: “We went to South Korea on a pre-season tour and it blew the players’ minds, how big he was. We went to a shopping centre and there were 30,000 people, all just waiting for him. For him to walk in the streets there is quite difficult.”

Son said: “In the summer when I go home I wear caps, sunglasses. When people recognise me of course I am happy but it can be a little bit dangerous if there are big crowds around me. Not for me: I mean for them. I need to care for them.”

Son stresses how lucky he feels, and he has had a fine career so far. But, at 25, he has a lot on his plate. He is striving to do what his father never could, and that brings pressure. Then there is the topic he will not discuss: the prospect of a two-year stint of military service, which South Korean men must start by the age of 28.

Luckily, he has always been adaptable. When Son arrived at Hamburg, he decided that ‘Heung-min’ might be too hard for Europeans to pronounce. So he introduced himself as ‘Sonny’, and the nickname has stuck. He now finds it odd if he is addressed ‘Heung-Min’ when in Europe.

With all his responsibilities, Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Swansea must feel like a breeze. Yet Son is desperate for something to ease the pain of Spurs’ Champions League exit at the hands of Juventus, as Pochettino’s side lost 4-3 on aggregate after being ahead with 30 minutes of the tie remaining.

He was close to tears after that game and even now, more than a week later, agony crosses his face when he is reminded of it.

It was so chastening, in fact, that it took Son back to South Korea’s exit from the 2016 Olympics at the hands of Honduras. That result haunted Son’s dreams for a month afterwards and it is clear that the Italian champions’ win at Wembley last week is in the same category.

“After the Juventus game I couldn’t sleep,” he revealed. “I was so upset and disappointed. It was similar to the Olympics, when I had dreams about it for a month, the same dreams. But now we must look to win. If we beat Swansea, it is a semi-final at Wembley. It is a great opportunity for us.”

What to read next