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The cult hero who made the Republic of Korea better: Son’s way touches a whole country

Qatar 2022 will be the tenth consecutive time the Republic of Korea has qualified for the FIFA World Cup, underlining its progress in football. The sport is extremely popular throughout the country, with fans idolizing the players that represent the team in international competitions.

However, a change of approach was needed after the team failed to make the knockout phase in the last two editions of the World Cup. In fact, another approach was taken in all of the popular sports, like handball, with foreign coaches appointed, as Portuguese mastermind Paulo Bento will now lead the Asian team at Qatar 2022.

Yet no coach will ever be so popular as the homegrown players. And that is especially true for Son Heung-min, as the Tottenham Hotspur striker has grown over the past years into one of the most, if not the most marketable star in the country, with his popularity soaring over the past decade.

No K-Pop artist or movie star in the Republic of Korea is so widely appreciated as Son, whose down-to-earth nature, natural talent and impressive performances have thoroughly transformed him into a bone-fide star. But what makes him so popular in the Republic of Korea?

The answer is quite easy, as shown this summer when Tottenham Hotspur set up camp in Korea for their pre-season tournament. Millions of fans came to see Son, who stopped to take pictures, sign autographs and even held a special press conference, which was broadcasted throughout the country.

He was just on the back of a record-breaking season in the Premier League, securing the Golden Shoe trophy, after scoring 22 goals in a superb campaign for Tottenham, which saw the team back into the UEFA Champions League after a four-year hiatus.

Son is not only a star on the pitch, but he is the captain of the Korea team and their fourth all-time top scorer, with 35 goals, 23 less than the record holder, Cha Bum-kun. He is also giving back to the community time and time again, remembering his humble beginnings in the city of Chuncheon, a bustling and brimming town with a population of nearly 300.000 people, just 100 kilometers away from the capital Seoul.

It was in Chuncheon where Son set up a football academy for the brightest young stars in Korea, enlisting the help of the man who made him great, his father, Son Woong-jung. The academy was started over a decade ago, but when the Korean player made his mark at Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen, in the German Bundesliga, it started to take off.

Numerous sponsors joined the cause and now over 30 children are trying to learn the secrets of football, in a fully private-owned academy. Through their relationships with European clubs, they try and help youngsters who show the biggest potential find a new club, and the cycle repeats itself time and time again, with players as young as seven enlisting in the academy, which basically guarantees a future in football.

But not all brilliant for the Son family, especially as Heung-min was growing up. Yet his father instilled passion and discipline for sport – football in this case – even if he was not a famous football player or even played in the first division.

“We were living in a very difficult situation when my son said he wanted to become an athlete. I was at my worst economically. And Chuncheon is surrounded by mountains, so there was a lot of snow and cold wind during winter. Those years were very difficult,” said Son’s father, according to the “Korea Times”.

Slowly, but surely, Heung-min became better and better and all the hard work and training paid off. His father also helped, reportedly waking up early in the morning to pick up all the little stones from the school playground so that his boy would not get hurt when falling.

Also, he poured over 100 bags of salt to keep the soil of his son’s school field ― where they held daily practice and on snowy days, he shoveled snow with a wooden plow to secure a corner that was big enough for his son to dribble and work out in.

Therefore, founding an academy was just an easy step to help young children get better conditions to play football in. The £11 million and 66,000-square-meter football academy, with three football fields, is the best in the country and will likely help young children get even better.

And this is the whole legacy made by the Son family, which will definitely improve football in the Republic of Korea. And while Son’s popularity might stem from founding this place or the £70,000 to his country’s armed forces prior to triumph in the 2018 Asian Games, it all boils down to a simple thing.

Being down to earth

The Korean star’s injury during the game against Marseille in the final matchday of the UEFA Champions League at the start of November sent shockwaves throughout Korea.

Will Son be ready or not in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup? It went back and forth for a few days, until the player himself confirmed he is available.

“Playing for your country at the World Cup is the dream of so many children growing up, just as it was one of mine too. I won’t miss this for the world. I can’t wait to represent our beautiful country, see you soon,“ wrote Son in an Instagram post.

Just like that, the whole country breathed a sigh of relief. Son is good to go, and he carries a whole country around his shoulders.

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