World Cup stories: Heung-min Son, the anti-Ronaldo from South Korea

Do nicknames get any worse than Sonaldo?

It sounds awful and creates unnecessary pressure, hardly something Heung-min Son needs more of as he carries the hope of a nation on his shoulders.

The South Korean squad is certainly better than average but it is Son, the only South Korea player to play in the Champions League or Europa League last season, who holds the key. Until recently he was fighting for a place in the Tottenham team but has proven his worth on the biggest stage at club level after considering taking a backwards step.


Backwards steps aren’t something the 25-year-old has had the chance to become accustomed to during a career that has only ever been on the up.

Son arrived in Hamburg at just 16 and couldn’t speak a word of German. He was described as “shy but always neat” by his former host mother Jutta Wendorf. Hardly the characteristics you’d associate with a rising superstar.

However, it wasn’t long before Son was receiving the attention of one. By 18 he was playing for Hamburg’s first team, by 19 he was a crucial member of the team. His rise didn’t go unnoticed in his homeland either and he was soon inundated with love letters and fan mail.

After three seasons in the first team, Son left Hamburg’s sinking ship at the right time as Bundesliga rivals Bayer Leverkusen paid €10m for his signature.

Son may be shy but he is unashamedly determined and ruthless; behind the forward’s move to Leverkusen was the hope that delivering at the BayArena would earn him the attention of clubs in the Premier League. South Korea’s most famous player was destined to complete a dream move to the world’s most famous league.

But he still had to force it.

“He is a huge star at home and there are dozens of articles about his every appearance at the moment,” Asia-based John Duerden told Sky Sports after Son’s €30m move to Tottenham made him the most expensive Asian player in history in 2016.


“He is popular and very famous indeed and has made headlines for dating pop stars. Son is one of the most famous people in South Korea at the moment.

“After Ji-Sung Park, he is already the most successful player the country has sent to Europe.”

It’s clear that Son had outgrown Leverkusen after just two seasons with the club. With huge games early in the season, the Bundesliga outfit were reluctant to let Son go. With little hesitation, he did what young footballers do nowadays – he went on strike. Son’s whereabouts were unknown for two days and he refused to respond when his club tried to contact him.

Leverkusen officials suggested he was badly advised but Son hit back, especially after he was criticised by Hakan Çalhanoğlu, who had ‘earned’ a transfer in controversial circumstances himself.

“Those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Son responded. “Everyone should look after their own homes, they’ve certainly got enough to deal with there.”


Perhaps not so shy anymore, Son certainly knew how to get his way.

And no wonder. After all, he’d worked hard since childhood to become a star. His father is a former professional who had warned his son against a career in professional football. Now he drives the forward’s career on. Son refers to his father as a coach, a friend, and a teacher. The pair pore over every game together to see where improvements can be made.

That can cause its own problems, though.

“Son has a huge entourage: his father, sponsors. That’s not easy,” Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino wrote in a book released last year. This caused issues in Son’s first season at the club when he found playing time hard to come by. The Son family don’t plan for stagnation in his career and the Spurs manager had to talk him out of leaving the club.

“One thing is the desire of the player, another thing is the desire of the club. In his mind, he was determined to move but in the end he accepted that he had to stay and fight for his place,” Pochettino explained.

That’s exactly what happened.

His second season in England was a huge success, with Son becoming a crucial member of the Tottenham attack. And he isn’t satisfied yet.

“I want to get better and better and better,” he told FourFourTwo in March.

“In your dreams you can do what you want. In Korea, they say that you should dream bigger than big. All football players want to win awards like the Ballon d’Or, and that is one of my dreams.”

Which brings us back to the comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo.

The two share ambition, their favourite position, and maybe the fact that they’re popular with popstars. But that’s where the likeness ends.

Son, after all, is something of an anti-Ronaldo. While the Portuguese’s every action is made with the view to bring him closer to glory, Son often does the opposite.


Under Pochettino he has learned to make runs that benefit the team, dragging opponents around and opening up spaces for the likes of Harry Kane or Dele Alli. When he scores – as he did 18 times last season – it is often a by-product of his game rather than the sole objective.

On top of that, he defends selflessly from the front.

Heung-min Son is a manager’s dream and did not mature into a Tottenham regular by accident.

He may be a little way from that Ballon d’Or yet nit Son has an unending motivation to improve and at the World Cup, on the biggest stage of all, he can prove just how far he has come.