Abu Dhabi: It was in September last year that South Korea star Son Heung-min was faced with the challenge to see his side take gold at the Asian Games in Jakarta and earn him a reprieve from mandatory national service.
It garnered a lot of eyeballs and drew worldwide media attention but the 26-year-old stayed calm and captained his side to continental success at the tournament.
South Korea beat Japan 2-1 in the final thanks to extra-time goals from Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan to finish first place for the first time since 1986. The Tottenham winger was then exempt from military service.
Four months down the line and Son is back in the national squad with the captain’s armband on and this time the mission is the Asian Cup, a tournament in which they are looking to end a 59-year drought.
Son, coming into the contest after playing an absorbing contest in Spurs’ 1-0 loss to Manchester United on Sunday, flew in to the aid of his side. The striker, who has played in 12 matches for Spurs in a little over a month, was at the task straight away and immediately tasted success.
South Korea stormed into the round of 16 finishing at the top of their group winning the last outing against China 2-0 on Wednesday.
“It’s been tiring but it’s always been my dream to play football. It’s an honour to wear this red shirt and I want to give my best whenever I’m on the pitch and that’s what I tried to do today,” said Son, who won a penalty early on against China which Hwang Ui-jo converted with ease. Then in the second half, Son sent in a measured release from a corner and Kim Min-jae hammered home a power-packed header.
“I think we deserved to win this game as we dominated the game from the start till the end. I have just started to enjoy this tournament as it was my first game. To get three points with clean sheet 2-0, it’s a good performance,” said Son, who had signed a contract extension at Spurs until 2023 and felt it was unfortunate that he has to miss club matches due to national duty.
“I love to play for Korea and also love to play for Tottenham. Both are special for me but now that I’m here, I want to serve the team the best way possible in this tournament,” said Son, adding he will be able to take a much-needed break since their next match is on January 22 against the third-best finisher from Groups A or F.
“We have a good break of five days before the next game so it will be a much-needed rest for me before the round of 16,” said Son adding, “We are not thinking about the title as of now. In football, there is always an element of surprise and hence we need to focus game by game. We are very much looking forward to play the next round.”
South Korean coach Paulo Bento, speaking about keeping Son for 87 minutes on the field, said: “To play for the national team is a wish every player has. That’s something they all have. Son, of course, is one of our best players.
“Son is a player who can play in different positions and different ways. We are very satisfied with that he did today. He was in good condition to play this game. We took that decision to play last night and it helped us reach the last 16 without conceding any goals.”
The China manager Marcello Lippi speaking about his teams showing said, “To be honest the team we faced tonight was fast, strong and very good technically. They were holding possession and controlled the game.
“They were faster than us, more aggressive than us, and they are used to playing with the intensity. For us, it’s not the same. It was hard but we thought resting some of our players was a good move because we now have to prepare for another important game in the knockout.”