World Cup: South Korea on Son Heung-min's shoulders

South Korea's Son Heung-min bawled his eyes out when his country lost in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics, a result that could still have repercussions for his future.
South Korea's Son Heung-min bawled his eyes out when his country lost in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics, a result that could still have repercussions for his future.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAINT PETERSBURG • South Korea's Son Heung-min is bearing the weight of expectation at the World Cup just as heavily as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane.

He blamed himself for the 1-0 opening Group F loss to Sweden, leaving the Koreans on the brink of a group-stage exit and needing at least a draw, and probably a win, against Mexico today to keep any hopes of progressing.

"I'm still disappointed about my performance," he said. "I feel very, very sorry for my team-mates because if we don't score, it's my fault, because I need to take the responsibility."

Responsibility is one take, pressure another. Son, 25, is a star in his home country, to the point that he has to be in disguise when he leaves the house. And he knows that he must shine not only for the team but also for himself.

He bawled his eyes out when South Korea lost in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics, a result that could still have repercussions for his future.

As is the law in South Korea, he owes 21 months of military service and is due to begin his stint before he turns 28. There are precedents for successful footballers being granted exemption, as was the case in 2002, when the national team reached the World Cup semi-finals, and 2014, when they won the Asian Games gold.

Son missed out four years ago as Bayer Leverkusen refused to release him and there may be a similar dilemma for his club Tottenham to confront when the Asiad starts in Indonesia in August.

For now, though, the pressure is on Son to step up against Mexico in Rostov.

"When he plays for the national team, the opposition focuses on defending against Son Heung-min," coach Shin Tae Yong said.

"To become a big player, he has to overcome that barrier."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2018, with the headline 'S. Korea on Son's shoulders'. Print Edition | Subscribe