For this week’s FRONTPAGE, we speak with Son Heung-min, the 2021/22 English Premier League’s top scorer and South Korean football sensation, about his ongoing dream to become the best player in the world.
Is there anything else out there for Son Heung-min besides football? “Not at all. I’m not good at anything else,” he tells me. He’s just rushed back from a training session to join our Zoom call and is now sitting comfortably in his North London home. His schedule was frantic today; Antonio Conte, head coach at Tottenham Hotspur F.C., decided this morning that the team would have to train double the usual amount. It’s three days before the club’s match with Newcastle United, one that could flip the Premier League and possibly qualify Spurs for the 2023 Champions League (Spurs won, 5-1).
Despite this, and the fact that he just returned from a 10-day cross-continental journey for South Korea’s World Cup qualifiers, Son is calm and high-spirited. “When some [people] get tired of football, they want to do something else, like hang out with their friends. But I’m the opposite, I want to go more and more into it. Football is everything — It’s my best friend, my life.”
Alternately known as Super Sonny, Son-sational, or Sonaldo Nazario (after the legendary Brazilian player, Ronaldo Nazário), the Number 7 forward-midfielder’s most resonating moniker — one that constantly shows up in post-match headlines — is “history maker.” Throughout his seven years as one of the most talked about players in the English Premier League, Son has done just that: made history.
The 30-year-old is the first Asian player to break 100 goals and assists in the EPL, and the first Asian to score more than 20 goals in a soccer season, a record he broke in 2017. He boasts an unprecedented streak of double-digit goals every season since, and finished the most recent one as the top non-penalty scorer in the entire league, becoming the first Asian to ever win a Golden Boot.
Son Heung-min is undeniably recognized as one of the best Asian soccer players — if not the best one — in sports history. But all this heavy lifting for Asia, while impressive, obscures the fact that he is not only an exceptional player to come out of the Eastern continent, but one of the top in the game overall, period.
Son had always been a coveted prodigy since his youth academy days at the German Bundesliga, but the world took more notice of him in 2019, at Tottenham’s home game with Burnley F.C. In just 11 seconds, Son outran a half-dozen Burnley players as he solo-dribbled the ball from one end of the field all the way to the opponent’s goal post, a performance so shocking and exhilarating that the entire stadium gave him a one and a half-minute standing ovation. It’s the second-longest distance traveled by a scoring player on EPL record, and is still touted by fans as the best and most ridiculous Premier League goal ever. The goal also helped Son win the prestigious FIFA Puskás Award the following year, and led to him being longlisted for the Ballon d’Or, a yearly honor that, minus one occasion, has only gone to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the last decade and a half.
Back home in Korea, Son is a national hero, not only for his unparalleled performance at the Premier League, but also for captaining the South Korea national team. Under his leadership, it beat Germany 2-0 at the 2018 Russian World Cup, a momentous episode also referred to as “the miracle of Kazan.”
By now, it shouldn’t even be a surprise that Son is, and has been, the most expensive Asian football player of all time. (His salary is the second highest in Tottenham, at a weekly wage of £200,000). In 2020, Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism estimated Son’s global “economic effect” — the financial influence and value that Son adds to Korea’s consumer goods exports, production, tourism, and advertising — to be 2 trillion Won, or $1.8 billion, surpassing that of BTS.
Son’s boundary-pushing speed and rare ambipedal skills aside, the football ace is also well-liked for his perennial smile, which lends him a certain infectious charm. He’s cheery, kind, and humble, a temperament he’s displayed time and again on and off the field. Even throughout our hour-long conversation, I can sense his exuberance and sincerity radiating through the screen, beaming excitement and pure passion when talking about the sport. Even fans of Tottenham’s biggest rivals will admit he’s a great player, and a great guy.
Sonny’s favorite soccer memory harks back to his time as an eight-year-old, when he first told his father that he wanted to be a footballer. “I still remember it. As soon as he said yes, I ran around the house, kicking the ball. It was a mess,” he says, animatedly gesturing with his hands. But weren’t there other equally, if not more, exciting moments in his career — like the 11-second Burnley goal — to cite as his favorite? “There are so many good memories. But without that decision, I wouldn’t be here. That’s my favorite moment because I made the right decision.”
Seeing Son’s childlike smile, it’s not hard to imagine him as a happy-go-lucky eight-year-old, but his easygoing demeanor is not to be mistaken for a carefree attitude. Like anyone trying to achieve extraordinary things, it was not a smooth ride for the world-class forward to become world-class. Son’s father, Son Ung-jeong, who was also a pro soccer player in Korea, did not take young Sonny’s aspirations lightly; the boy’s dream had to be followed up by relentless determination, intense training, and real sacrifice.
The second of two brothers, Son Heung-min was born and raised in Chuncheon, the capital city of Korea’s northern Gangwon Province. His family was so financially strapped that at one point, they had to live in a container. Instead of enrolling in a youth team and working with coaches to gain experience — which would have been the traditional “elite” track for a wannabe soccer prodigy — Ung-jeong trained Son himself, focusing on building a flawless, solid foundation. They would spend every day perfecting Son’s ball control and ambipedal shooting in such intense drills that Son recalls their neighbors couldn’t believe Ung-jeong was his father.
Their hard work paid off, but financial hardship continued. At 16, Son was plucked from his hometown to join the youth academy at Germany’s Hamburger SV. Ung-jeong would have to walk hours to and from his motel to visit Son’s training facility because they couldn’t afford a car, let alone public transportation.
“It was really, really tough,” Son says of his first few years in Europe, which he cites as the most difficult time of his career. “I couldn’t speak German [or] English, I didn’t know the culture. When I was a kid I thought language doesn’t matter when playing football, but I moved to Germany and suddenly realized how important that is. The only [thing] in my mind was, ‘I need to be successful.’ I had a clear dream. I [thought], ‘If I go through this, one day the lights will come to me.’”
During our Zoom call, he’s wearing a casual gray hoodie, and it makes him look even younger than he already does, almost like a college student. He’s not the type to flaunt his flashy jewelry and designer clothes, although Son does enjoy dressing up. I note his hoodie to be Burberry, a brand he will go on to become an ambassador for three months after our call. He’s also endorsed by adidas and TUMI, and has modeled for Tag Heuer, Cartier, and Gillette, to name a few.
“My teammates don’t like my dress. Some of the guys, they still don’t understand fashion,” he jokes, laughing out loud. “I really enjoy dressing [up] because most of the time, we are wearing the same tracksuit and don’t have many opportunities to wear an outfit.” When asked which of his clubmates is the worst dresser, Son is reluctant to answer. “I can’t mention one name. There are a few! I’ll die in the changing room.”
Despite all of his accomplishments and successes, Son still strives for his childhood dream. “I can’t believe that I’m playing [in the] Premier League. When I was a kid I said, ‘I want to be the best player, number one in the world.’ Obviously I’m not, but I’m working on it. One day, I want to be a hundred percent. Then I will say, ‘Sonny. I’m so proud of you. You made it.’ I’m not the best player in the world, but I can definitely say I love football the most.”
For Son, the most important trait for a soccer player to possess is ardent love for the game. “You should fall in love. Before you go to bed, you should be thinking about football. Nothing else. It sounds crazy, when you watch 22 players moving when the ball moves. It’s a really funny game! I don’t know how to explain it. Why do I play football? Because I fell in love.”
At the time of our interview, it’s three months away from his 30th birthday. “Thinking about my twenties, it’s only positive things. I played Bundesliga, then joined the Spurs. Played in the World Cup, beat Germany. I did everything to be happy and successful,” he says looking back. “I don’t want to change anything. I want to be [a] positive and happy guy, playing football. I want to be like you, and like me, right now.”