Son Heung-min is no longer an invisible star

Tottenham Hotspur's South Korean striker Son Heung-Min attends a training session at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, on May 31, 2019.
Tottenham Hotspur's South Korean striker Son Heung-Min attends a training session at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, on May 31, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

South Korean and his silky footwork proving Asian players possess craft on top of drive

LONDON • A half-hour or so after Tottenham Hotspur had edged out Manchester City in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final, the club's new stadium was all but empty.

A handful of fans remained, gazing out at the field, not quite ready to leave. Most of them had come to see Son Heung-min.

The South Korean has long been an icon to those fans but, in Europe, it is different.

There has never been any doubt about his talent, but it was not until those few weeks when he went supernova - that England, and Europe, started to afford Son the star treatment: the forward whose absence is worth fretting over, the player who might lead his team to the Champions League title.

On the day of the final against Liverpool in which he might cement his place as a global superstar, it is worth asking why.

In the summer of 2013, Bayer Leverkusen was short of a main sponsor. That June, at a cost of a club-record €10 million (S$15.4 million), the German team signed Son from Hamburg. In August that year, Leverkusen inked a three-year deal with LG, the South Korean electronics firm, with Son becoming a brand ambassador.

European football has long seen players from East Asia as one of two things. One is, essentially, a way not simply of winning the hearts and minds of the vast audience available in Japan, South Korea and, especially China, but of attracting sponsors from those markets, too.

The other perception is, perhaps, best illustrated by the case of Park Ji-sung, the former Manchester United midfielder.

ROLE MODELS

There is a way of looking at Korean or Japanese players that is the construction of an Asian masculine subject through the lens of the stereotype of the 'obedient citizen'.

LIM HYUN-JOO, sociology lecturer, on the conventional ways Asian players are viewed in Europe.

"Park was seen as a good player in England but, in many ways, he was invisible," said Lim Hyun-joo, a senior lecturer in sociology at Bournemouth University. "I was shocked by the reception in Korea: all the people went crazy for him. It was a complete contrast."

Park spent seven years at Old Trafford, and was held in high esteem by both fans and his manager, Alex Ferguson. Park's virtues were not necessarily related to his talents, though: He was cherished for his industry, his energy, his discipline. He would often be tasked with man-marking the opposition's biggest threat.

It was a case study of how Europe views Asian players: they might sell jerseys, tickets and sponsorship deals off the field but, on it, they are - first and foremost - good workers.

"It is the idea of the model minority," Lim said. "The coverage of Son that I've read has focused a lot on his hard work, his discipline, his filial piety.

"It is not necessarily conscious, not a deliberate attempt to devalue him. But there is a way of looking at Korean or Japanese players that is the construction of an Asian masculine subject through the lens of the stereotype of the 'obedient citizen'."

Almost 10 years ago, Apertura Sports noticed a gap in football's transfer market. More and more German clubs were hoping to win fans and commercial backing in Japan, South Korea and China.

The quickest route to a vast new audience seemed to be importing a player, a local hero, but few teams had the familiarity or expertise to recruit with much confidence. Apertura decided to be the bridge.

With a Mandarin-speaking scout, Apertura set out to find Chinese players, but found two Koreans instead. It pitched them to German clubs, but the reaction was hardly effusive.

"A lot of clubs were not really responsive," said Johannes Graf Strachwitz, one of Apertura's co-founders. "They kind of waved the idea of signing Koreans off."

Europe's scepticism about Asian players - that they were either good workers, or highly-paid billboards - was deep-seated.

In 2003, Lee Young-pyo, a star of the Korean 2002 World Cup squad, joined the Dutch team PSV Eindhoven, along with Park.

Lee knew he had the faith of his coach: PSV's Guus Hiddink had, after all, guided that South Korea team to the World Cup semi-finals.

"He knew me well," Lee said. "However, my teammates had different thoughts about me."

By his own estimation, it took him a year or so to win them over.

"I had to face the stereotype of an Asian player, and it took quite a time to prove my ability to my fellow teammates," he said.

The stereotype persists, though. Even now, Apertura finds that clubs have a "specific idea" of the type of player they might find in Asia.

"They see them as dedicated, reliable, hard-working, respectful of older people, and never a problem for a coach," Strachwitz said.

In Son's case, of course, that is all true, but it does not begin to do justice to the full range of his abilities as a player.

The longer he demonstrates that, the more likely it is that clubs will start to disregard it, that they will look in Korea and Japan not just for disciplined and obedient workers, but for potential superstars, too.

Son is still subject to the stereotype. In time, he may yet be the man to break it.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2019, with the headline 'Son is no longer an invisible star'. Print Edition | Subscribe