Korea's Beckham

How Son became a genuine footballing superstar

Every year since 2009, Forbes Korea has compiled its Power Celebrity Index. The country’s best-loved and best-known personalities are ranked according to their achievements, their influence, their popularity and their earnings.

This is a country whose young population is currently utterly obsessed with the K-Pop phenomenon which seems to be taking over the world; the top five of the Forbes list reflects that, with groups such as Blackpink, BTS, current and former members of Wanna One, and Red Velvet represented.

Only one sports star has managed to pierce the popular consciousness. And that sports star is Son Heung-min.

“Son is well-known and loved by all generations of South Koreans,” says Sungmo Lee, journalist with Goal Korea. “Starting from teenagers – and even younger than that – to those in their 70s and 80s.”

K-Pop’s biggest stars may well have the youth market cornered off but only Son can unite the entire country.

You can get a flavour of Son’s transcendental popularity on any given matchday involving Tottenham in the Premier League and Champions League, where Son has a dedicated cadre of Korean journalists – Sungmo included – dutifully monitoring his every kick and utterance.

And scores of Korean fans in the United Kingdom attend Spurs games up and down the country. You will see them in the stands with their Son Heung-min scarves and Korean flags waving proudly.

When he scores a big goal – for example, against Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals – breakfast shows back home will hurry to relay the footage to an eager audience.

That was also the case back in April, when Son scored the first goal in the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on the evening of its inauguration.

It’s estimated that the Naver portal in Korea attracts 200,000 to 300,000 users for every live stream of a game involving Son. Add another 200,000 – at least – for television broadcasts, with the total number tuning in to Son’s matches sometimes reaching one million.

Newspapers and the country’s biggest websites carry his image every day. Not only of his on-field exploits, but increasingly it’s becoming common to see Son on the front pages in his personal life, in his casual clothes, walking down the street.

The exposure is huge; being so far from home can help in that regard. A household name among football fans in the UK he may be, Son can nonetheless live his life relatively unmolested.

“South Korean fans and travellers see Son passing by and they ask for selfies and photographs,” says Sungmo.

“Son usually accepts fans’ requests. He's bright, always smiling, and usually gets along well with people.”

There are, indeed, groups of Korean fans who wait patiently outside the Tottenham training facility at Enfield for the opportunity to see their hero come by in one of his many luxurious super cars.

He poses for selfies and signs autographs, and retires to live modestly at his apartment in Barnet, where he counts his parents among his housemates.

That kind of straightforward and quiet way of living would be impossible for Son in Korea. Fans even track his flights when he is coming home and turn up in their hundreds at Seoul’s airport to meet him when he lands.

“He is a family person; he doesn’t even go out very often,” says Sungmo. “He likes to stay at home, aside from playing football.

“If he was living in Korea, it would be harder for him to go outside since everybody would notice him right away.”

One place you’re liable to see Son in Korea is inside the stadium representing the national side, the captain’s armband proudly festooned to his biceps, and ready to lead the Taegeuk Warriors into battle.

Another is on the television, on billboards and anywhere else you might see him as a pitch man for one of the many brands he represents.

You’ll see him drilling balls into the top corner for Gillette, the company that had Thierry Henry and Roger Federer in their pomp.

You’ll see him treat his aching muscles after a workout with Yuhan antiphlamine lotion.

You’ll see him running his fingers through his hair, playing fussball with a group of handsome, well turned-out screen friends and trying to sell you TS Shampoos.

And then there’s that catchy ice cream ad, the Binggrae Super Cone. Son – along with K-Pop superpowers Wanna One – is the key salesman for Korea’s equivalent to the Cornetto. Watch it once and try not to sing along.

His 2.3 million followers on Instagram mean his posts are worth a fortune to advertisers such as his boot supplier adidas.

It all tells the tale of Son’s ubiquity in Korean life. This country has produced famous players before – Park Ji-sung chief among them – but Son is a modern star for the modern age.

He is beloved of Korean fans, who cheered as much in relief as exultation when Son managed to bring home the Asian Games title last year. By winning it, he gained an exemption from military service, which had been deferred from his younger days.

While he has not managed to emulate Park’s glory with the national team – the ex-Manchester United man was a key component in the World Cup 2002 team which reached the semi-finals on home soil – there is little question that Son is by far the better player.

He is a key man for Tottenham, perennial Champions League participants these days and semi-finalists this week. For all the affection in which Park is held at Old Trafford, the same could not legitimately be said of him.

However, Son’s exposure is somewhat limited by Spurs’ lack of collective success.

While he has won team and individual honours in Asia, the lack of a Spurs breakthrough in the trophy stakes – despite their evident progress under Mauricio Pochettino – means he is not quite in the same sporting stratosphere as Park.

But there is time. He is back for the game against Ajax in Amsterdam after missing the first leg due to suspension. And as we saw against Man City in the quarter-final, Son is possessed of devastating, tie-defining quality.

Despite Tottenham’s late-season unravelling, Son has been a consistent and important force in their Champions League run to this point. He has scored big goals, not only against City but also against Borussia Dortmund.

And this in a season where demand on his talents – at the Asian Games, the AFC Asian Cup included – have never been greater.

Son’s popularity at home is testament to the fact that his compatriots believe they are following a genuine footballing superstar.

And given his ever-increasing centrality to the Spurs cause in the most popular competitions in world football, who could deny it?