Son Heung-Min has plenty to of reasons to be smug at the moment. For one thing, he and Leverkusen are sitting comfortably in second place in the Bundesliga, with only Bayern spoiling their fun. Meanwhile the Werkself are still going in both the DFB Pokal and the Champions League, with ties against Kaiserslautern and PSG to look forward to. Son himself has very much found his feet at Leverkusen. After struggling to get on the scoresheet initially, the forward now has nine goals to his name in all competitions, including a hat-trick against former club Hamburg. With Sidney Sam moving to Schalke in the summer for roughly the cost of an extravagant ice cream, Son’s progression will be a source of relief for coach Sami Hyypia and co.
Of course, in a World Cup year there’s more than just club football to think about, and Son’s garden is similarly rosy at international level. His 96th minute winner against Qatar way back in March turned out to be really quite useful, as South Korea sneaked into an automatic qualification spot for Brazil on goal difference. To top it all off, he was recently named South Korean Player of the Year. Clearly his efforts are being appreciated back home.
With all that in mind, it seems Son has a lot to look forward to over the next six months. But what are his and South Korea’s chances of pulling off a repeat of their 2002 heroics, when they reached the semi finals on home turf?
South Korea will have mixed feelings about being drawn in Group H. On the one hand, they’ve avoided the traditional big names and historic World Cup giants. On the other, teams with the quality of Belgium, Russia and Algeria won’t make progress easy for them. Belgium in particular have already built a reputation as dark horses to win the tournament, with a squad that’s full of European stars and household names. They have discovered the rather handy knack of producing players that combine skill on the ball with intimidating physical presence, regardless of their position. A centre back partnership of Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen won’t take any prisoners, while Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele can match any midfield in the world for power. Even their strikers are giants, with Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke capable of trampling over defences at will when in form. Add in the guile of Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, and it’s clear this is a team to be feared.
The nagging doubt over Belgium is that this group of players hasn’t been tested at a major tournament, with the country failing to make any of the last five European or World Championships. It’s the same story with Russia, who last competed at a World Cup in 2002, while Algeria failed to score a single goal in South Africa, their only finals appearance since 1986. Compared to the other teams in the group, South Korea have a good record at recent tournaments. The way they knocked out Italy and Spain on their way to the last four when they co-hosted the World Cup is one of the most famous sporting underdog stories of recent times. They have qualified for every tournament since 1986, and again progressed from the group stage in their last outing four years ago.
To keep that record going, South Korea will need their goalscorers in good form, and that’s where their German-based players come in. Lee Dong-Gook will be 35 by the time the tournament swings around, and hasn’t scored for his country since 2012 . Meanwhile Park Chu-Young has been frozen out since moving to Arsenal and getting lost somewhere in the bowels of Emirates stadium. That means two of the country’s all-time top scorers are unlikely to contribute much. The problem can be seen in the squad for the January friendlies against Costa Rica, Mexico and the USA, which only contains players who play their club football in Asia. Of the 20 selected (excluding goalkeepers), just three have scored international goals.
Son is undoubtedly one of the players meant to fill that vacuum, while fellow Bundesliger Koo Ja-Cheol has been an important source of goals from midfield for his national side; the Mainz player has 12 in 34 appearances. Up front, Dortmund’s Augsburg’s Ji Dong-Won has another eight strikes to his name at international level.
All things considered, there’s no reason coach Hong Myung-Bo and his team can’t make it through the group stage, to set up a tie with one of the teams in Group G. While it may be obvious to say that the tournament will get harder as it goes along, this is where things get serious for South Korea. Group G contains Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the USA, and while all four are tough potential opponents, there’s no doubt the prospect of facing either Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo or the German juggernaut is daunting.
Barring a miraculous performance, this is probably where we’ll be saying goodbye to Son. But that would represent another respectable performance for South Korea, and given the good group of young players at their disposal, this tournament could act as a stepping stone to greater things at Russia 2018. In any case, maybe competing against Bundesliga rivals will inspire their star player.
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