My fandom for soccer began when I was five. It was the 2002 World Cup, and like everyone else in South Korea that summer, my friends and I had been swept by the fervor of our country’s Cinderella run to the semifinals. Since the tournament began, the players on that ‘02 national team had become our heroes. We tried recreating their goals at our local park. We bickered over which of our favorite players were more important to the team.
For me and millions of other Korean soccer fans, Ji-sung Park rose as the undisputed icon of Korean soccer after the World Cup, becoming an integral member of Manchester United — one of the elite clubs in European soccer. As the national team languished, never able to recreate the mysticism of that ‘02 team, I followed Park’s career as closely as I could.
But this article is not about Ji-sung Park. I say all this to stress that, when I say Tottenham Hotspurs forward Heung-min Son has since become my favorite soccer player, he is edging a player that was one of my earliest sporting heroes.
I found that you look at the game differently as a fan of a player rather than as a fan of a team. If Son does not start, or is substituted in a game Spurs struggle in, I point to Son’s lack of minutes as the reason why. All the positive contributions he makes, no matter how small, become magnified. The same way people can be irrational about the teams they support, arguing against every refereeing decision that goes against them, I am irrational in my belief of Son. As a Korean soccer fan, I cannot help but feel proud whenever he does something that creates a buzz in the world of soccer.
My irrational fandom also comes at a price. When I watch Manchester United, the club that I now support thanks to Park, I can have a reasoned perspective on individual performances. As long as Manchester United wins, I can brush off subpar games from individual players as natural inflection points during a long season. After all, no one can be perfect every game. However, because I am watching the game only for him, I find myself not giving Son that kind of leeway. There is a standard I expect Son to consistently meet that I recognize is unreasonable, but I nevertheless hold him to.
What’s staggering to me is that despite millions of other Koreans following Son like I do, he never shows signs of being fazed. When there are TV shows created to broadcast your highlights and your face is all over grocery aisles, it is passion that transcends fandom. Every Spurs home game, there are Korean flags dispersed across the stadium from fans who flew to England just to watch him play. This might all make him one of the most marketable soccer players, but his popularity also comes with the responsibility of playing for an entire nation every single game. His teammates only play for the supporters of Spurs. When Son wears a Spurs shirt, he is playing both for his club and his country. Even as supporters, Korean fans do not travel 5000 miles to watch Son on his off night.
If he feels added pressure as Korea’s sporting icon, Son certainly has not shown it. This past season, Son was one of two players in the English Premier League to register double digit goals and assists. He is the only Asian player to have reached the 50-goal mark in the Premier League.
But numbers alone would not make Son my favorite player. I still have a sentimental fondness for Park that I do not think I will have for any other athlete. Son might objectively be the more valuable player, but since when has fandom been objective?
What edges Son over Park for me is how Son has thrived off of dismantling the preconceptions of how Korean players must play to succeed in the biggest stages of the sport.
In soccer, analysts tend to typecast players in ways that are lazy punditry at best and stereotyping at worst. Break down the language pundits often employ to describe Asian players, and a pattern emerges. Pundits often reduce Asian players’ strengths to their discipline and team-first mentality, papering over any technical or tactical aspects of their game.
“I played with Park Ji-sung at Man United, and [Son and Park] have similar qualities,” ex-England international Phil Neville said to Goal. “Their attitude is fantastic. They give energy to their team.”
Whenever pundits fetishized Park’s lack of ego, only talking about how much of a team-player he is, their analysis always seemed to include an implicitly patronizing but. It is as if they were saying that Park is an integral player for Manchester United, but if he were not so committed to being a team-player, he would lack the technical qualities to play in Europe. Nevertheless, I never felt fully justified in how such analysis irked me because I agreed that being a team-player was Park’s best trait. In a team full of stars, you need complementary players that can plug in the gaps, and Park was better at executing those roles than anyone.
However, when pundits like Neville dusted off the same tropes for Son, their condescension did not seem so implicit. I mean, the two don’t even operate on the same part of the pitch. Park was a midfielder. Son is a forward. It was as if they took Park’s best attribute and constructed an archetype that all Korean players regardless of position must follow to succeed.
Whether the pundits have paid attention or not, Son has shown there is another way. If I had to describe Son’s game, I would say he inhaled Portugese star Cristiano Ronaldo and exhaled a Korean facsimile with 80% of his skills and thigh definition. His movements are jagged, direct and quick. Like how a pitcher with a 100 mph fastball can overpower batters even without elite control, the power he puts when striking the ball overwhelms goalkeepers on shots you think they should save.
Son also plays with a clinical selfishness that Park never showed. This past season, Son registered the most shots on the team. Park would never have made a scene in the middle of the game and fought with a teammate over who should take the penalty kick.
Even I will admit that I was skeptical that a Korean player could become a star in the Premier League. As I watched Park prosper, I also saw many other Korean players try their craft in England only to quickly disappoint and become afterthoughts. As much as I hated it, I began to believe that there was a certain way Korean players must play to become a part of the elite clubs in Europe. I am glad Son has shown me I was wrong.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 28, e-print edition. Email Kevin Ryu at [email protected]