Heung-min Son – Shining in Korea.


Heung-min Son – Shining in Korea.

He is 30 years old and he celebrated his birthday last week on July 8th. He is a professional footballer who plays for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League. He is the captain of his country’s national football team, and his name is Heung-min Son. And he is also probably the most famous South Korean in the world. 

The English football season usually winds down towards the end of May, and this is the time when the players go on holiday for a few weeks. Sonny, as the Tottenham fans call him, has always travelled home to South Korea at this time of year, but these days his journey is that of the returning and conquering hero. His exploits both for Tottenham Hotspur and for his country have made him an iconic legend in South Korea and he has a huge fan following there. He is clean cut and handsome, and without ever seeking the position, he has emerged as a great ambassador for his country.

What is the story behind this meteoric rise? In 2008, at the age of 16 and after a successful trial with Hamburger SV in Germany, Sonny left his home in Chuncheon to join this German football club. He made his debut in the German Bundesliga in 2010, and in 2013 moved to Bayer Leverkusen for a club record €10 million. His continuing success led to his signing for Tottenham Hotspur for £22 million in 2015, becoming the most expensive Asian player in history. 

While at Tottenham, Sonny became the top Asian goalscorer in both Premier League and Champions League history. In 2019, he became the second Asian in history to reach and start a UEFA Champions League final. And this past season he won the Premier League Golden Boot award for the most goals scored in the season, becoming the first Asian player to do so. This is an even more remarkable achievement because his tally of 23 goals does not include any penalty kicks whereas everyone else who came close to his score had penalties in their totals. I am not saying that penalties should not be counted, but it’s just that to win such a prize without any is a truly stellar achievement.

Sonny is not the only famous and high achieving player in Europe. There are many others, some of whom are almost household names, such as the high scoring Portuguese, Cristiano Ronaldo and the all-round Argentinian footballing genius, Lionel Messi. But Sonny has one unique selling point. Whereas Portugal and Argentina have produced many football stars, he is one of the very few South Korean players who have broken through and excelled in such a big way. Thus, he attracts the attention of millions of Asian football fans. He is one of their own, so to speak.

Becoming a footballing legend in both Europe and Asia has had a big financial effect on Sonny. At present he has signed a contract to stay at Tottenham until 2025, and this earns him around £7 million per year. As befits a global football star, he is one of the top earners at the club. But that is only the start. He is a brand name in his own right and has been able to negotiate some lucrative endorsement deals. Just recently he became a brand ambassador for the British fashion house of Burberry. There is a huge market for these kind of luxury products in South Korea, not to mention in other Asian countries such as Singapore and Japan, and he is the perfect man to have on board to advertise them.

The financial benefits have also flowed over to Sonny’s employers. Many Koreans follow Tottenham very closely just because he is one of their stars. And this translates into thousands of sales of replica shirts with his name “Son” on the back alongside a large Number 7. Then there are also sales of other items just because of the association. These include sales of shorts, socks, scarves, books, matchday programmes and matchday tickets as well. It is quite common to see Korean fans present at the stadium on a matchday, and they will often be waving a Korean flag or have small Korean flags painted on their faces. In many ways they are more fans of Sonny than they are fans of Tottenham, but nevertheless the club reaps the rewards of the arrangement.

Finally for a few days from Saturday, July 9th Tottenham are on a pre-season tour of South Korea. On Wednesday, July 13th they play a friendly game against a Korean League Representative side, and on the following weekend they will play Spanish La Liga side Sevilla in a friendly match. The tour fulfills several purposes. Because the English Premier League begins in about three weeks, Tottenham would always look to have some pre-season friendly games just to warm up for the new season. So the thinking was that they should go where a multitude of fans would be keen to come and see them. It would be flying the flag, so to speak. Giving the locals a chance to see Tottenham close up will only add to the ongoing relationship. The Tottenham players will be training during their stay in Korea, but the trip has also given them the chance to do some impressive community work, such as having a development session with young adults from ChildFund Korea as part of Global Football Scheme run by the club. And various players have also expressed great interest in doing some sightseeing, including some visits to Korean restaurants. Well, it’s all great public relations for both Sonny and for the club.

And so, as the 2022-2023 season draws closer, the footballer Heung-min Son is approaching the peak of his playing career at Tottenham, and brand Heung-min Son is also thriving in a spectacular way. Was it planned this way? I’m not sure anyone could really say. When Tottenham bought him those seven years ago, they believed they were getting a good player, but there are never any guarantees, and I really don’t think they could ever have realized that they were buying someone who would develop into one of the best players in the world. He is a talented footballer, and a hard worker, because that is what it takes to get to the top. But it does not stop there. He is also someone who is always so cheerful and smiling and humble with it.


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