Meet Son Heung-min, The Greatest Asian Soccer Player of Our Time

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24: Heung-Min Son of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea FC at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on November 24, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The rise of Son Heung-min in 2018-2019 has been nothing short of scintillating.

A goal-scoring machine with wicked pace and a deft touch, the South Korean winger has soared above expectations for Tottenham Hotspur this season. He’s led his injury-ravaged side to both a third place standing in the English Premier League (as of this writing) and a UEFA Champions League semi-final berth (farther than his team has ever made it in the tournament), accomplishments that have earned him a London Premier League Player of the Year award — as well as the now incontrovertible distinction of being amongst the very best in the world.

If you’re late to the Son bandwagon, here’s some things we think you should know about the 26-year-old superstar.

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His team is currently playing in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League — the largest, most prestigious club soccer tournament in the world

When you think of soccer glory, the World Cup is, of course, the first thing that comes to mind. After all, soccer is by leaps and bounds the most global sport there is. But not too far behind is the UEFA Champions League (UCL), an annual tournament that contests top-division clubs from all over Europe. Ronaldo has won it five times, Messi four.

Ronaldo’s Juventus is already out of the running this year, though, so who’s looking to rain on Barcelona’s parade on the other side of the bracket? None other than the winner of Ajax vs. Tottenham.

 

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Your 2019 #UCL semi-finalists! 👏

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If ever there was underdog at this stage in the tournament, it would be Tottenham. Their quarter-final bout against Manchester City was already considered by many to be a long-shot, especially when star player Harry Kane went down with an injury in leg one (Champions League matchups are contested over two games, and the aggregate score of both is tallied to determine the winner).

But miraculously, Sonny — as he’s affectionately referred to by his fans and teammates — pulled off the unthinkable, scoring three out of his team’s aggregate four goals to send Spurs past Man City.

 

As of this writing, Tottenham is down 0-1 in aggregate against Ajax after the first leg, a game in which Son sat out. He’ll be returning in leg two, though, so we’ll see if lightning can strike twice.

He’s probably already the greatest Asian soccer player ever

With all due respect to the greats, Son Heung-min’s accomplishments this season have set him apart from the rest of Asia’s best. With his two goals against Man City in leg two of the UCL quarters, Son made history as the highest-scoring Asian player in Champions League history. His phenomenal speed, impeccable ball control and ambidexterity have made him one of the Premiere League’s top scoring threats.

As arguably the most important player on a team this deep into a UCL run, Son is doing things no Asian player has ever done. Sure, there have been Asian players at this level before (indeed, Park Ji-sung even won a Champions League title with Manchester United in 2008), but none have featured in such a starring role. If a Tottenham vs. Barcelona final were to materialize, it would be seen in the eyes of many as Messi vs. Son (especially given the absence of Kane), and that’s all you really need to know.

 

He’s the most popular athlete in Asia right now

According to data provided by Nielsen Sports via CNN, Son is the most popular athlete in Asia when it comes to social media followers, beating out Shinji Kagawa, Jeremy Lin, Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori.

The article, which was published on April 18, reported the number of Son’s followers to be 1.98 million. As of this writing, merely 12 days later, Son’s Instagram following has swelled to 2.3 million, testament to the reach of the UCL.

In fact, Son’s newfound popularity is such that he is also currently the leading vote-getter for FIFPlay’s FIFA20 cover star poll (which will determine the athlete that will grace the cover of the upcoming FIFA20 video game), ahead of both Ronaldo and Messi. Crazy!

 

He managed to avoid mandatory military service by winning gold at the 2018 Asian Games

South Korean law states that all able-bodied men must serve at least 21 months in the military and enlist before the age of 28. For Son and many other athletes, this would mean losing almost 2 years during the primes of their careers. Thankfully, the South Korean government also grants exemptions for athletes who manage to win an Olympic medal of any color or an Asian Games gold.

As one of Korea’s top soccer prospects, the nation’s football association attempted to procure this exemption for Son as far back as 2014, when they requested that his then-club, Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga, allow the precocious youngster to join the South Korean national team for the 2014 Asian Games. Unfortunately, the club refused to release Son, citing that they couldn’t afford to lose him for six games during that period.

Four years later, however, Tottenham granted what Leverkusen did not. Now 26, the 2018 Asian Games would be Son’s last opportunity to earn exemption. In true storybook fashion, the South Koreans took it all the way, winning 2-1 over Japan in the final (Son assisted on both goals) to keep Son’s phenomenal career alive. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

 

It runs in the family

Son lives a fairly unconventional life as far as pro-athletes go. Far from being the type to drink and party, he also happens to still live with his parents in a three-bedroom apartment in Hampstead, London. A big reason why is that he owes a ton of his success to them, and his dad in particular.

“There are different attitudes in Europe and Asia and, of course, people are thinking: ‘Why is he living with his family?’” he told The Guardian. “But who cares about me? Who is helping me to play football? It is them. They gave up their life and they come over here to help me. I have to pay back.”

He isn’t exaggerating; Son’s father, who was also a professional soccer player in his own time, has dedicated his post-soccer life to molding Son into the player he is today. Speaking to The Guardian, Son recalls the four-hour keepy-uppy sessions his father would run him through as a 10-year-old: “After about three hours, I was seeing three balls. The floor was red [through bloodshot eyes]. I was so tired. And he was so angry. I think this was the best story and we still talk about it when we are all together. Four hours keeping the ball up and you don’t drop it. That’s difficult, no?”

When Son broke into the Hamburg youth academy in Germany at 18, his father would periodically visit from South Korea to put him through additional workouts.

“My father was thinking of what I needed all the time,” Son said. “He has done everything for me and without him, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”

 

He returns to action in the UCL semi-final leg 2 vs. Ajax

Son will return to action in the UCL on May 8, where he will attempt to provide the boost Tottenham needs to overcome a 0-1 deficit and make it to the Champions League final for the first time in club history.

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