South Korean football player Son Heung-min is globally acknowledged as the greatest Asian footballer of all time, but he was once a dreamer like the rest of us. In childhood, Son found his inspiration in former South Korean legends such as Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo in the Premier League. Their success stories ignited the fuel within Son to dream big from an early age—he first declared his ambitions of becoming a professional footballer like his heroes to his father when he was only in 3rd grade.
Fast forward to 2022: today, Son himself has inspired millions in his native land and across the world over the years to do the same—becoming this aspirational figure for others is perhaps the crowning achievement of his storied career. While his performance is impressive enough, peeling back the layers behind this national treasure’s cinematic rise makes his story all the more compelling.
The 30-year old’s rise does anything but sell dreams—the grind that got him to his success was relentless, and cannot be under-emphasised. In fact, the Son Heung-min blueprint for success, comprising an indomitable work ethic, incessant sacrifice, and a no-nonsense father stops one in their tracks—if presented with the chance of having his glorious career at this cost, there are many who would not be willing to take it.
Hailing Chuncheon, a small city in the Gangwon province of South Korea that houses around 300,000 residents, Son had the odds stacked against him from day one, if purely from the fact that athletics, while appreciated, are not precisely hailed as an expected career choice in South Korea. In Asian culture generally and particularly in South Korea, education is deeply ingrained as a form of societal and intellectual currency in a way that remains unrelatable to the West. Unsurprisingly, a study in 2018 named South Korea is the most educated nation in the world—in such a setting, it would be far more likely to gain support, acceptance, and access to necessary resources for success if pursuing academic ambitions, rather than athletics.
While a left-field career choice in football would be largely looked down upon as a form of hampering one’s familial pride in the eyes of the external world, Son happened to be born to a father who was a former professional footballer himself, having been a former forward in the K-League for a brief 5-year spell. Recognising talent in his son, Son Woong-jung took it on himself to coach the boy so that he could become an even greater success, and put him through gruelling, rigorous drills—he even demanded “Sonny” perform kick-ups for an unimaginable 4-hour spell—which he did without erring even once. (If he did make any mistakes, he would have to restart from 0.) From the moment Son expressed his ambitions to a professional career, his father ruled his coaching with an iron first in efforts to live out his personal ambitions through his gifted child.
The now-Tottenham Hotspur superstar’s seemingly rapid ascent is the polar opposite of a classic case of overnight stardom. In an interview with The Guardian, Son describes his hellish training sessions under his father’s guidance, which would end with a 40-minute session of more kick-ups without making a single mistake to enhance his ball control. If this makes you quiver, you may not be cut from the same cloth as the South Korean icon, who was asked to take 500 shots with both feet from five different areas in the box. The fact that a young Son was instructed to put on his left boot and sock as well as his left leg into a pair of trousers first to train the naturally weaker part of his brain is a testament to the astounding attention to detail that went into the making of the global icon.
Although describing his father as a “strict coach” who was “scary as well,” Son clearly loves and appreciates his father, believing ultimately all this hard work was completely necessary and correct in helping him reach his current position. Son Woong-jung’s seemingly inhuman training methods worked wonders, as his kin has gone on to develop into one of the most technically proficient, two-footed and complete wingers in world football. This dedicated father could confidently claim that his devoted child could stroll into any club’s starting XI in Europe—but to this day continues to demand more. Even with all of Son’s success, his father still refuses to admit that he’s become a “world class” player, instead cautioning against hubris, saying “must face everything with a cautious mind and can’t afford to be too proud.”
Perhaps it is this emphasis on humility we have to thank for Son Heung-Min’s generous and kind public persona. While I would never suggest that I am personally pally enough with one of the best footballers in the world to vouch for his kindness, I can confidently say that Son’s public-facing attitude and behaviour are beyond reproach. To be one of the best footballers in the world, generate a fandom akin to the BTS phenomenon in South Korea, and still maintain an air of humility around oneself is commendable.
Just as Son looked up to the South Korean footballers who played before him, he has now taken on the mantle of role model, and is wearing it well. To build a reputation of being one of the nicest men the sport has to offer sends the right message to billions of impressionable children tuned in at all times. Not to be catty, but it is easy for successful professional athletes to go the route of Nick Kyrgios, who while undeniably talented, is incredibly rude.
Son’s kindness is not all talk: plenty of action proves how the megastar seems to be aware that the world does not revolve around him. South Korea’s greatest has built a reputation of going out of his way to engage in charitable acts. The revered athlete’s words after donating £100,000 to those in need during devastating forest fires in his homeland in 2019 sum up how in touch remains with the privilege that comes with his status: “It’s nothing compared to what the victims have sacrificed. Although I’m living abroad, I know what’s happening in my home country. I think it’s something I should do when there’s a big disaster in my home country. I believe money does not matter. The most important thing is a mind to do something for the victims,” he commented.
Another incredible investment that showcases how he looks out for others is the £11 million academy he built back in Chuncheon, the city he grew up in. The state-of-the-art academy has mostly been funded by the world-class attacker himself, with his father and brother taking on the coaching responsibilities. Students in Chuncheon who once never had access to adequate resources now have the template on how to become one of the best players in not just the country or continent, but even the world.
It’s safe to say that Son Heung-min will always be remembered as the unassuming king that broke barriers, inspired billions, firmly put his country on the map for athletics, and always kept an eye out for others. If that isn’t a legacy, what is?