Neil Humphreys: Why Asia's favourite footballing Son inspires us

Son Heung-min was never going to miss. He did the right thing, as always.

Once again, Tottenham Hotspur’s talisman proved to be exceptional.

In an era where so much seems wrong, Son stands out for just being right.

As a beacon of decency, he’s the iconic footballer that Asia always wanted. But he’s also the humble professional that a pandemic-weary audience needs.

The South Korean’s goal in Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Brentford yesterday morning (Singapore time), smashing the Lilywhites into the League Cup final, was never in doubt and thoroughly deserved.

The 28-year-old forward has grown into both an extraordinary attacking force for Spurs and a security blanket for the rest of us. As long as Son is going about his business with his usual dignity, then there’s a sense that everything might be all right in the end.

After scoring the decisive second goal against Brentford, he deflected praise towards the team, his default position. He did the same after netting his 100th goal for Spurs against Leeds United last Saturday.

Son wasn’t being falsely modest, or regurgitating the public relations training that turns English Premier League footballers into cliche-spouting robots. He just isn’t wired that way.

He couldn’t be arrogant or indulgent if his next contract depended on it (he’s negotiating one now and seems characteristically unfazed by the process).

Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho adores the South Korean and understandably so. Son fits snugly into the Mourinho template. He didn’t before, not entirely anyway.

Famously, Son fought with Hugo Lloris at half-time against Everton back in July. In the Amazon Prime documentary, there’s footage of the heated argument that followed in the changing room. The consensus was Son didn’t track back enough.

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He does now. A decisive block in his own half against Brentford was singled out for praise by his delighted manager. Mourinho’s tactics will always demand heavy industry on both sides of the halfway line.

Son is happy to oblige. Without complaint, he has improved his defensive game while forming perhaps the most effective attacking partnership in England.

Before the Brentford game, Son had 15 goals and eight assists to his name, confirming both his rise and Harry Kane’s elevation to the most complete striker in world football.

Indeed, Kane has acknowledged Son’s invaluable contribution. But the South Korean swatted away such praise. He’s all about the collective cause, a refreshing and necessary outlook, but one that isn’t universally shared among teammates.

There’s a recent tale of two lockdowns that epitomises Son’s character.

While he was preparing to score his 100th goal against Leeds, teammates Sergio Reguilon, Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso flouted coronavirus rules by attending a Christmas party.

The thought of Son being caught doing something similar is honestly unsettling, like Tom Hanks popping up at a drug bust or Ed Sheeran masterminding a bank heist. It just wouldn’t happen.

During the UK lockdown and EPL postponement last year, Son quietly returned to South Korea and completed his military service.

Naturally, he was one of just five soldiers to receive an award at the Marine Corps’ training camp graduation.

According to the Korea Herald, he scored a perfect 10 out of 10 in the shooting discipline. Of course he did.

Any remaining spare time was presumably spent feeding the poor and helping frail aunties cross the road, before resuming Tottenham’s eternal quest for respectability.

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This year alone, Son has cleared a century of goals for Spurs, secured a first cup final at Wembley since 2015 and been named the Best Footballer in Asia for the fourth year in a row.

And still, in an industry that insists on voyeuristic self-promotion whenever possible, even during a pandemic, Son has no interest in blowing his own trumpet. He behaves as if he doesn’t even own a trumpet.

“That’s the humility of a player. That’s Sonny. He’s like that,” said Mourinho. “Some other guys… are not like that.”

And they risk standing out like multi-millionaires in a pandemic.

But Son lives how he plays, following instructions, supporting colleagues and slipping in and out of the shadows. His lack of ego and his eagerness to learn from others make him a relevant inspiration in these polarised times.

What makes Son such a vital superstar is his refusal to accept that he is one.


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