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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

Son Heung-min: Why he's worth the wait for Asian Cup fans in the UAE

The South Korean has become a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League for Tottenham

The university years bring plenty of territorial football banter with the club you support being part of your identity.

While some prefer to cover their walls with landscapes, cityscapes, their favourite musicians or model, I never quite grew out of plastering football-related art (if you can call it that) on mine.

Along with the standard pre-season team line-up photo and one of Pablo Counago - scorer of the finest backheel goal I've ever seen - was a poster from the Nike Secret Tournament Scorpion campaign in 2002.

The advert featured a selection of three-man teams made up from Nike's stable of international superstars. The one I had consisted of Brazilians Denilson and Ronaldinho, and South Korea's Seol Ki-hyeon under the teamname "Funk Seoul Brothers." Funky stuff indeed.

Denilson and Ronaldinho were symbolic of big transfer fees, dazzling skills and the finest international side of the era. I'm fairly sure there weren't many other London students with Seol on their wall however.

A few years later Seol joined Wolverhampton Wanderers from Anderlecht in Belgium. He was the first South Korean player I'd seen live in more than a decade of being a season ticket holder in English football. He destroyed the full-back he was facing that day, turning him inside out.

His career in England never reached great heights, scoring a combined five goals at Reading and Fulham before signing for Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia and eventually moving back to South Korea.

Now, 16 years on, we have a more worthy member of the "Funk Seoul Brothers". Move aside Seol, step forward Son Heung-min.

The Tottenham Hotspur forward has already lit up two international tournaments in the past year, and as 2019 rolls in, he has another to display his abilities. For if there's one player to make an extra effort to watch at the Asian Cup in the UAE, it's Son.

ENFIELD, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13: Heung-Min Son of Tottenham Hotspur poses with the Carling Premier League Goal of the Month award at Tottenham Hotspur Training Centre on December 13, 2018 in Enfield, England. (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)
Son with the Carling Premier League Goal of the Month award on December 13, 2018. Getty Images

He missed South Korea's first two matches - victories over the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan - after Tottenham struck a deal with the national association to keep Son in London for longer in return for releasing him in August for the Asian Games.

Son arrived in the UAE only on Monday, ahead of Wednesday's final Group C match against China. Korea have already qualified for the last 16 of the Asian Cup, although Son is expected to play some part at Al Nahyan Stadium.

The deal seemed to suit both parties: Son fired South Korea to Asian Games gold medal in Indonesia, therefore avoiding 21 months of compulsory military service. In exchange he was allowed to miss November's international friendlies against Uzbekistan and Australia to help Spurs in their Premier League and Uefa Champions League quests, scoring 12 goals in all competitions.

Football fans in the UAE have already been treated to the European champions Real Madrid, as they strolled to victory in the Fifa Club World Cup last month.

But while Gareth Bale impressed with his hat-trick against Kashima Antlers, and Luca Modric showed in the final why he is a worthy Ballon d'Or winner, the Asian Cup provides more of a level playing field where players at a higher level such as Son will have to perform at their very best to inspire those around them.

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Read more:

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South Korea overcome battling Philippines to get Asian Cup challenge off to winning start

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South Koreans in the Premier League have been few and far between. Park Ji-sung is the most celebrated having won four league titles and the Uefa Champions League at Manchester United. Ki Sung-yueng is on loan at Newcastle United while Lee Chung-yong did well at Bolton Wanderers before a spell at Crystal Palace. He now plays for Bochum in Germany's second tier.

Not only is Son the shining star for Asian footballers in Europe, he is genuinely one of the top performers in the Premier League. He has achieved what many of his compatriots have failed to do - win the admiration of neutral fans.

"Sonaldo", as he is affectionately known by Spurs fans, is gaining a reputation for being as explosive in the final third as Leroy Sane, Mohamed Salah and Eden Hazard.

The showreel moments are many. Last season there was the explosion of pace from inside his own half to leave James Milner trailing to score in Spurs' 4-1 victory over Liverpool.

Then this season we had the unravelling of Chelsea's David Luiz and Jorginho at Wembley when Son went motoring down the wing and cut in past Luiz as if he wasn't there before finding the bottom corner.

The best players are often described as free spirits, playing carefree as if in the school playground, their unpredictability a potent weapon.

At times this has been Son's downfall, but over the course of his four seasons at Tottenham, he has grown more consistent. Son isn't short of self belief and could have been perceived as a luxury player, yet he fits snugly into Tottenham's fluent system in which opponents have to also deal with not just Harry Kane, but the ever-moving Son, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen.

There's one final compliment that comes from the e-sports generation.

Millions of gamers around the world have been bashing away at Fifa 19 for the past few months with Cristiano Ronaldo the cover star for EA Sports.

One industry website has been holding a poll for who should be on the cover for next year's iteration. And, at the time of writing with more than 330,000 votes already cast, it is Son, not Ronaldo, leading the way.

Son Heung-min. Video game star, Premier League star and hopefully worth the wait at the Asian Cup.

Updated: January 16, 2019 03:25 PM

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