Fans wonder how much is too much for Son to play for Korea
Son Heung-min has played a lot of soccer over the last 12 months, with minutes on the field seemingly outranked only by air miles.
It has some South Koreans wondering how much is too much.
The recently completed season with Tottenham Hotspur was intense enough, with almost 50 appearances as the club placed fourth place in the Premier League and progressed to the Champions League final before losing 1-0 against Liverpool in Madrid.
Through it all, he maintained a taxing schedule with South Korea’s national team that included trips to the World Cup in Russia, the Asian Games in Indonesia and the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates. And international friendlies on top, too.
Despite all that, the 26-year-old Son was called once again by South Korea coach Paulo Bento to fly from Europe to play 90 minutes in a low-key friendly against Australia last Friday and prepare for another exhibition against Iran in Seoul on Tuesday. There have been calls for the player to be given a break but that is unlikely to happen.
“All coaches want their best players ... we’re preparing for the World Cup qualifiers, and this is an extremely important stretch for the national team,” Bento said. “I felt we needed Son to play at this juncture and develop chemistry with others. I think that’s a positive for the national team.”
Off the field demands are significant, with Son the main figure in promotional campaigns that have helped sell out the last seven home games, a run rarely seen since the time surrounding the 2002 World Cup.
His popularity can get out of hand at times. Upon arriving in Busan to face Australia, Son was met by hundreds of fans at his hotel waiting for photos and autographs. There was some push and shove and, according to reports, some criticism of Son from people who missed out.
The player later thanked fans for attending and apologized that he could not take care of all of them.
“He is the most popular athlete in Korea,” according to South Korean soccer commentator Seo Hyung-wook. “He does need to be rested but then he said that he is fine and nobody can leave him out of the squad against his will. He is the kind of player who takes his international duty and role model status very seriously.”
Son is used to being the center of attention on the field, too. On Friday, he was heavily defended by the Australians, and it was noted widely in the domestic news media.
Former Australia international Robbie Cornthwaite spent three years with Korean club Chunnam Dragons and has seen the demands that can be placed on Korean stars.
“Son seems like the type of player whose whole life is geared to play football, therefore he wants to play every game,” Cornthwaite said. “I don’t think he needs a rest but they just don’t know how to use him.”
Former players such as Park Ji-sung of Manchester United struggled with the demands that come with playing in Europe and representing their country.
Former national team captain Koo Ja-cheol explained last month that a grueling travel schedule was a reason he retired from the national team at the age of 30 after over 70 international appearances.
Arriving in South Korea on Monday or Tuesday after a weekend club game in Europe meant there was no chance to get over jet lag before practice with the national team on Wednesday or Thursday.
“We would then go to somewhere like Uzbekistan on Saturday, train Sunday and Monday and play on Tuesday,” he said, “then it was back to Germany to arrive Thursday morning and start training for the weekend’s game.
“This was my life for years.”
It is Son’s life for now, too, and it shows few signs of changing.