The Korea Herald


Golden Boot winner Son Heung-min tasked with carrying S. Korea to knockouts in Qatar

By Yonhap

Published : Aug. 11, 2022 - 09:17

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In this AFP file photo from July 23, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur greets fans after a preseason friendly match against Rangers at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow. (AFP) In this AFP file photo from July 23, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur greets fans after a preseason friendly match against Rangers at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow. (AFP)

When Son Heung-min made his FIFA World Cup debut eight years ago in Brazil, he was far from being the international star that he is today, having just completed his first season with Bayer Leverkusen following three years with Hamburger SV. Son, then the youngest South Korean player at 21, scored his first career World Cup goal in Brazil, but it came in a 4-2 defeat to Algeria in the second group match, a loss so devastating that it overshadowed what should have been a shining moment for the youngster.

In 2018 in Russia, Son, by then with Tottenham Hotspur, netted an injury-time goal in a 2-1 loss to Mexico in the second match of the group stage. In the next game, Son capped off South Korea's shocking 2-0 win over the defending champions Germany with another added-time goal. It was one of the most improbable victories in South Korean football history, though it still wasn't enough to send the team into the knockouts.

To recap: Son has scored three times at two World Cups, tied with former captain Park Ji-sung and retired forward Ahn Jung-hwan for most goals by a South Korean player on football's grandest stage. But for Son, those goals have either come in a loss or in a win that, for all its entertaining moments, ultimately proved inconsequential.

With the next World Cup in Qatar some 100 days away, Son, now 30, is rightly regarded as one of the best players in the world. He was the co-Golden Boot winner in the Premier League last season, sharing the scoring lead with Mohamed Salah of Liverpool with 23 goals. For opponents, Son is no longer just a curiosity or simply someone to keep an eye on. He is now the type of player that defenders can't really stop but can only hope to contain.

And South Korea will look to Son, their captain and most dangerous attacker, to find the back of the net in victories that matter in Qatar.

Make no mistake: As the Taeguk Warriors try to reach the knockouts for the first time since 2010 in South Africa, they will only go as far as Son can take them.

Such is the outsized impact that Son can have on South Korea. And the team must find ways to take advantage of Son's speed and shooting

Son has netted 33 goals in 102 matches for South Korea so far. In the midst of a drought that saw him score only three goals in 20 matches, Son faced some criticism for deferring to his teammates too much and not being assertive enough around the net. As if to silence those skeptics, Son went on a stretch of seven goals in 12 games.

If Son scores in Qatar, he will match Park as the only South Koreans to do so in three consecutive World Cups.

Among Asian-born players, Keisuke Honda of Japan is the top World Cup scorer with four, a realistic target for Son this year.

With South Korea paired with Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana in Group H, there could be some fireworks in the group stage.

Portugal will be led by Cristiano Ronaldo, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner and one of the all-time greats. At age 37, the Manchester United star may be playing in his final World Cup.

Uruguay's veteran forward Luis Suarez has some fond World Cup memories against South Korea from 2010. In the round of 16 that year in South Africa, Suarez scored both of Uruguay's goals in their 2-1 win over South Korea.

Suarez, 35, will be accompanied by his heir apparent in Qatar. The 23-year-old forward Darwin Nunez led the top Portuguese league with 26 goals in 28 matches last year, en route to earning the league's best player award. Nunez parlayed that success into a deal with Liverpool this summer.

Ghana don't feature a household name of Ronaldo's ilk, but they have recruited a handful of Europe-based veterans with dual nationality and had them switch allegiance to be eligible to play for the African nation in Qatar.

Two other England-born players of Ghanaian descent, Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea and Eddie Nketiah of Arsenal, are reportedly being pursued by Ghana's national football federation as well.

Nketiah is England's all-time leading scorer at the under-21 level with 16 goals in 17 games. Hudson-Odoi has represented England's senior team three times.

However, since all of those appearances came before his 21st birthday, Hudson-Odoi is still eligible to play for Ghana if he chooses. (Yonhap)