LONDON: South Korea’s Son Heung-min is already staking a claim to be considered the greatest player Asia has ever produced thanks to his stunning form for Tottenham Hotspur.
The free-scoring Son, 25, already has 18 goals in all competitions this season, including seven in his last five games, and is well on course to beat his own record of 21 for goals by a Korean in a European league.
“In terms of recent form and impact in one of the top leagues in the world, there is no doubt that Son is up there and few Asians have had the kind of season he is having at the moment,” Asian football expert John Duerden told AFP.
The World Cup in three months time provides Son with the ideal stage to confirm his status as Asia’s finest.
South Korea continue their World Cup preparations with a friendly trip to Northern Ireland on Saturday.
A 2pm local time kick-off in Belfast means the match won’t finish until well beyond midnight in Seoul, but fans in the Far East are already used to staying up long into the night to support Son from afar.
“He is the biggest sports star and one of the most famous people in the country,” added Duerden. “Koreans are proud that one of their own is winning games and plaudits in England and Europe. He is big news.”
The road to fame and fortune has been a long one, though.
His father Son Woong-jung, a former professional player himself, took the unusual decision in Korea to take his son out of high school at the age of 16 to head to German giants Hamburg.
From there he joined Bayer Leverkusen, where he got his first taste of Champions League football, before becoming the most expensive Asian player of all-time when he moved to Spurs in 2015.
Despite a difficult start to life in England, Son took the brave decision to stay and fight for his place to form a fearsome front four with Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, and Dele Alli.
“He’s so humble, and he’s such a normal guy,” said Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino.
“I think he’s such an important player for us, scoring a lot of goals, and he’s very consistent.”
Son is now just three goals off 50 for Tottenham and has passed compatriot Park Ji-sung as the highest-scoring Asian player in Premier League history.
However, he has yet to win a trophy for club or country and it is Park’s achievements that have set the bar for Son to match.
Park scored at three World Cups, playing his part as South Korea got to the semifinals on home soil in 2002, as well as winning four Premier League titles and the Champions League with Manchester United.
Son already has more international goals than Park but has struggled to have the same impact at major tournaments.
South Korea face a tough challenge to progress beyond the group stage in Russia having been drawn against world champions Germany, Sweden, and Mexico.
And failure to produce something extraordinary could also have a devastating impact on Son’s rise.
Military service remains obligatory for South Korean males and Son’s career could be put on hold unless he gains an exemption.
The 2002 squad were exempted for their extraordinary achievement, whilst winning the Asian Games in August would also enable Son to avoid an enforced career break.
“Military service is very real and unless something happens in the next year or two, Son will have to come home and to serve his military service,” said Duerden.
“There is sympathy that his career may be interrupted and perhaps seriously damaged by having to leave Europe for 21 months, but this is a fate that all Korean males have to deal with. Football players are no different.”