On 23 November 2019, it took 36 minutes for David Seung Kim to realise a dream. That is how long it took for Son Heung-Min to open the scoring for Tottenham Hotspur against West Ham United. From the early kick-off and TV cameras to the London Stadium setting, it was the quintessential modern football experience. Much of the pre-match build was dominated by the departure of Mauricio Pochettino and the imminent debut of Jose Mourinho in the Spurs hot seat. Yet the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ was not the star attraction for David, nor was it the clash between two London rivals. Instead, it was Son; the 28 year old Korean superstar who has since become one of the Premier League’s best. His talents were on full display for David with a goal and assist contributing to an entertaining 3-2 victory for the visitors. With VAR drama and a late comeback from the hosts, it was a red card-short from having everything. Not bad for the first Premier League game you attend.
David splits his time between Korea and the United States. Two years ago his studies brought him to East London and he has since continued his journey to Leeds. This makes for a fascinating comparison of different footballing cultures, particularly compared to the global brand that is the Premier League. Despite its growing popularity, football in Korea only turned professional in 1983. Less than twenty years later, however, and the entire football world turned its attention to the country as it hosted the 2002 World Cup with neighbouring Japan. In doing so, they became the torchbearers for South-East Asia as the region became the first outside of Europe and the Americas to host the sport’s biggest tournament. In many ways, it was a curious decision given the complex history shared between Korea and its former coloniser, yet even this did little to quell the anticipation of hosting a World Cup. In spite of the constant comparisons to Japan, David reminisces that it soon become clear with the emergence of stadiums across the country that the summer of 2002 was going to be a ‘special’ one. Qualifying as hosts, expectations were not particularly high given the relative greenness of professional football in Korea and the fact they had failed to progress any further than the group stages in their five other appearances at the tournament. ‘While we had the home field advantage, we still thought we would be lucky to win even one game’ David concedes and a 5-0 thrashing to France in a warm-up friendly did little to change the consensus and ‘shocked’ even the most pessimistic of supporters.
The arrival of Guus Hiddink in January 2001 meant Korea were not an entirely unknown quantity to European supporters. Hiddink was already an established name following notable spells at PSV Eindhoven, Real Madrid and the Netherlands. He had guided the latter to the Semi-Finals at the previous World Cup and this would ultimately be a feat he would repeat with Korea in 2002. Nobody could have predicted what Korea would go on to achieve that summer. That was reflected in what David described as only a ‘small group of people’ gathering to watch the games as the tournament kicked off. Such a modest following was not to last as Korea embarked on a fairytale run that saw them top a group featuring the heavily-favoured Portugal, United States and Poland. That was only the start as ‘all the major streets in Seoul were closed’ as anticipation levels rose with famous victories over Italy and Spain in the Round of 16 and Quarter-Finals respectively. The latter holds a particular soft spot for David as it marked the first time he ventured out from the comfort of his own home to fully experience the World Cup fever sweeping the streets of Seoul. In a ritual not too dissimilar to many football fans, David recalls the pre-match build for an afternoon kick-off beginning at seven o’clock in the morning. The presence of Korean singers and entertainers rounded off the celebrations, but for English fans the most surprising element remained the overall lack of disappointment. In perhaps a sign of the lack of preparation of a lengthy campaign for the host nation, supporters soon ran out of water to the point where their eventual penalty shootout victory over Spain was met with ‘dry tears from dehydration’ from emotionally and physically exhausted supporters such as David. A 75th minute Michael Ballack goal was the only thing that separated Korea from the 2002 World Cup final. The dreaded third-place play-off also ended in defeat to Turkey, but Korea had achieved the unprecedented feat of finishing that summer as the fourth best team in the world. As David aptly put, ‘that was probably the best sport moment in my life and it still gives the chill just thinking about’.
Korea’s achievements that year were a watershed moment that opened the doors for its talented squad to make a name for themselves on the European stage. Rather than marking the beginning of a new period of success for the international team, however, 2002 was something of an anomaly. Despite being Asia’s most successful team, there is increasing competition from the likes of Japan and Saudi Arabia, yet it is China that continues to be earmarked as the country to break Euro-Americas hegemony. Despite its burgeoning population and economic muscle, Chinese football remains a ‘mystery’ to David and the majority of other supporters, but he recognises that for Korea ‘it is becoming harder to maintain its status as one of the leading nations’ and it is no longer a case of ‘winning as we participated’ in the AFC Asian Cup. To improve Korean football ‘holistically’, a renewed emphasis on promoting the K-League from a grassroots level has taken place. More notably, ‘people started filling the empty seats and started to show more interest’ in domestic football after the country’s success in 2002. Yet, David recognises that there are two obstacles ultimately hindering the development of football in Korea. The first is the external pull of international leagues, in particular Europe, and the desire for Korea’s most talented to prove themselves on the biggest stage. The second is the continued existence of conscription in Korea that requires all male citizens to enlist in the military between the ages of 18 and 28. Footballers are not exempt and the age bracket rather cruelly overlaps with what we tend to regard as a footballer’s ‘peak’ years.
There has undoubtedly been more positives than negatives since 2002; even if one of them has been the increased regional competition of the AFC. The 2018 World Cup in Russia showcased Korea’s flirtatious relationship with the tournament. A famous 2-0 victory – inspired by the ‘phenomenal’ Jo Hyeon-Woo – over Germany in the final group game seemed to confirm their progression at the expense of the reigning world champions. Alas it was not meant to be as a spirited Sweden upset Mexico to usurp Korea into the Round of 16. The image of a tearful Son Heung-Min after the game embodied David and the rest of Korea’s brief joy at achieving the kind of World Cup glory they believed was ‘impossible’ after the success of 2002. Despite the heartbreak, David insists ‘we were proud of what we accomplished as a team’. Such national pride is evident in the enduring recollection of that win against Germany – a fixture that has since been nicknamed the ‘Miracle of Kazan’.
Prior to the 2002 World Cup, Cha Bum-Kun carried the torch for Korea and Asia by establishing himself as a competent goal scorer in the Bundesliga for Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen. Post-2002, it was Hiddink’s – the overseer of Korea’s ’02 success – recruitment of Lee Young-Pyo and Park Ji-Sung to PSV Eindhoven. Park remains the most recognisable to casual fans after his stint with Manchester United, but his determined and energetic style of play earned him admiration wherever he played. Indeed, David credits Hiddink’s acquisition of Park in 2003 as the moment that truly ‘opened the doors for the current generation’. Park not only generated further interest in Korean players abroad, but allowed them to ‘gain more confidence in presenting their talents outside of Korea’. Following in the footsteps of Cha and Park, Son Heung-Min is Korea’s current superstar. It is difficult to argue against his talent following prolific spells in the Bundesliga and now in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur. David warns there is a different side to Son than the happy go-lucky charmer that he is portrayed as by the English media. ‘He is not always happy, smiling or crying player. Son is tough as one can get as he was trained by his father (the story of which is ongoing and crazy); he is mentally tough’. It is Son’s ‘hidden, yet humble ambition’ and his ability to blend his football skills into different cultures that make him so great in David’s eyes. It also offers an insight into the culture that follows trailblazers like Son with his fellow Koreans flocking to see him in action in the Premier League. Such support is not exclusive to Korea, but it remains an alien concept to English football fans – after all, how many flocked to see Wayne Rooney turn out for DC United?
What does the future hold for Son? ‘Many Koreans want him to move to a bigger club, but I understand it must be difficult to adapt to a new setting. I would want him to stay in England and I think that he might want to finish his career in Tottenham’ suggests David. At only 28 years old, Son is arguably in the midst of the best spell of his career. But who will emerge as his successor? Of the ‘many prospects and rising stars with outstanding talents’ that David alludes to, Lee Seung-Woo carried the most potential in the eyes of many. Recruited to the fabled La Masia, Lee was quickly burdened with the ‘Korean Messi’ nickname that arguably made it impossible for such a young talent to succeed. Eventually released by Barcelona, Lee now plies his trade with Sint-Truiden in Belgium. Still only 22 years old, Lee has the talent to turn his career around but his story remains a warning to the many Korean youngsters who ‘never really get to succeed in larger leagues’. Moving to Spain at such a young age has harmed his ability to integrate into the Korean national team and this has ‘really shattered his confidence’. David instead identifies RB Leipzig’s new signing Hwang Hee-Chan, Valencia’s Lee Kang-In and Tottenham target, Kim Min-Jae as three players more likely to follow the success of Son.
The Premier League remains the most popular league in Korea and a lot of that is owed to pioneers such as Park and Son. Unsurprisingly then, Manchester United and Tottenham can boast of a large Korean following and this support for some ‘random Premier League teams’ such as Newcastle and Swansea is owed exclusively to the individual pulling power of such players. It also goes some way in explaining the pre-season trend of Premier League sponsored tournaments in the continent. After all, Asia is a huge commercial market. Son might have cost Tottenham £22 million in 2015, but the acquisition of thousands of Korean supporters in the process has more than recouped that fee in match day revenue and merchandise sales alone. For these fans, ‘seeing a Premier League game in England is on their bucket list’ and that includes David’s 70 year old father whose plans to see Son in action this season were sadly postponed due to the Coronavirus. ‘I followed Son after coming to England but now I watch much game than I should’ confesses David. That includes recently waking up at 4am to watch Tottenham’s 1-0 win over Everton although he concedes ‘it was a horrible game with the only action coming from [Hugo] Lloris and Son arguing’.
Korea’s admiration of the ‘beautiful game’ is commendable and it is one that has subsequently fostered an open-minded following of the sport in Korea. David contests that it is the overall ‘balance’ and the diversity of the Premier League that puts it above other leagues. In addition to its ‘crazy rivalries’, David applauds the competition’s recent promotion of the NHS and Black Lives Matter: ‘I love how one’s talent can go beyond their skin colour’. Rather controversially, however, he ‘loves how there is no loyalty in football’ and uses the sacking of Pochettino as a prime example, but contrasts its cutthroat business demeanour with the loyalty of its fans. Of whom David and many other Koreans can count themselves among. David conclusively signs off with a realisation that will resonate with many other Premier League fans inside and outside of England; that ‘it started out with the talent of a player but its culture really captivated me’.
Can you relate to David’s story? Let us know in the comments below!