FOOTBALL can do strange things to people, the emotional highs and lows of the game capable of bringing out hitherto unseen aspects of even the most model professional.
Heung Min Son comes into that category, unfailingly polite, always respectful and ready with a smile, prompting his manager at Tottenham Antonio Conte to once say: “He’s really sensible and a really good guy. If I have to find a husband for my daughter I’d like it to be a person like him!”
And much as Conte must have heard every swearword in the footballing lexicon, in both Italian and English, even he might have raised an eyebrow to hear Son’s motivational speech to South Korea’s players during the most tense six minutes of their football history.
It was on Friday afternoon on the pitch at Education City stadium, moments after they had just beaten Portugal, with Son setting up Wolves striker Hee-Chan Hwang for a dramatic late winner. The result took them ahead of Uruguay on goal difference into second place in Group H, but they and their thousands of fans watching from the stands knew it could yet change.
Uruguay were into stoppage time against Ghana at the Al Janoub stadium and leading 2-0, knowing one more goal would put Luis Suarez and Co through to face Brazil in the last 16.
While Korean fans watched on their smartphones in the stands, the players stood in a huddle on the pitch doing the same, and Son wanted to reassure his team-mates that they already made their country proud.
“It was the longest six minutes of my life, but in the circle we were really positive,” said the Korean captain.
“The guys were saying, ‘we deserve this’. Then I said, ‘look whatever happens, even if Uruguay score one more goal, I’m f***ing proud of this team and I’m very happy that we gave everything, we’ll see what going to happen’.
“And everyone was just waiting – but those minutes were long minutes!”
When Uruguay’s game ended with the score unchanged, confirming Korea’s place in the last 16, every Korean appeared to be celebrating, except for Son, who broke down in tears. But this time they were tears of joy rather than those of sadness he showed four years ago in Russia, when Korea beat Germany in their final group game but failed to qualify for the knock-out stage.
“It was a similar moment. We beat Germany 2-0 and if Mexico had won the other game that day maybe we would have gone through but this time was different. We were waiting on other results and I didn’t even think about four years ago. I was just so happy and so proud at that moment. What else can I say? I was really happy and really proud.”
Son’s leadership on the pitch was even more important because Korea’s coach Paulo Bento was banished to the stands for the game, having got a red card for his protests after their draw with Uruguay in their previous match.
“The boss is really important,” added Son. “We didn’t want his last game to be not on the bench so the players knew we had to give everything, to be all together. Until Thursday we were training together and trained well. He believed in us and in his coaching staff so it was perfectly done by him.”
Asked if the Portuguese coach had passed on the secrets of success enjoyed by Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates, Son replied: “What secrets? We know them, they are superstars, world class players, we know what they do so the boss didn’t tell us any secrets. We were watching clips of the team, the players understood them well and we did a fantastic job.
“Sometimes results are different to what you expect and what we did was an unbelievable performance. Everyone gave everything and I’m very happy and very proud to me with this team.
And in the dressing room afterwards, Son went to each player, including unused squad members, to give them a hug and word of thanks. It is a tight-knit squad. “We are spending more time together than with our friends and families. In the camp, the guys have already been here for more than a month so we are close, really close. I’m grateful because those who didn’t play might have been really sad but they didn’t show their disappointment, they gave everything on the bench to support us and this makes a huge difference to be one team. I’m happy and grateful to lead this team. It makes a huge difference.”
They can now look forward to playing Brazil, where Son will come up against his Tottenham team-mate Richarlison and the rest of the Selecao’s superstars. “Richy and Brazil? Let’s see what happens,” he said, with his customary smile.