(World Cup) Unleashed at last, dynamic Son one of few bright spots for S. Korea

2014/06/28 09:00

By Yoo Jee-ho

SAO PAULO, Brazil, June 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korea barely put up a fight as it was knocked out of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil with two losses and a draw, having scored just three goals.

The team's scoring woes and problems on defense are well documented. Amid such an air of negativity, midfielder Son Heung-min has shone as one of the few bright spots for South Korea.

Son, who turns 22 next month, was the youngest member of the youngest-ever South Korean World Cup squad. Yet no one played with more assurance of a battle-tested veteran than he did in Brazil.

South Korean player Son Heung-min tries to sprint past a Belgian player during their FIFA World Cup match in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 26, 2014. (Yonhap)

South Korean player Son Heung-min tries to sprint past a Belgian player during their FIFA World Cup match in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 26, 2014. (Yonhap)

Son was named the Man of the Match in the 1-1 draw with Russia. Even though he didn't score a goal -- he actually missed a pair of chances that he should have converted -- Son put together a fine performance on both ends in his maiden World Cup match.

His efforts bore fruit in the form of his first World Cup goal against Algeria, though the accomplishment lost much of its luster because South Korea lost the game 4-2.

Son's goal early in the second half cut the deficit to 3-1, but South Korea couldn't narrow the gap any further.

The dynamic winger for Bayer Leverkusen was once again the energizer in the group finale against Belgium. Though he didn't generate as many opportunities as he had in earlier contests, Son still displayed abilities that make him one of the bright young stars in all of football.

He can shoot with both feet, and his ambidexterity helps him play on either flank with equal efficiency. Son also thrives in open space where he can put his speed and improving dribbling skills to good use. He has also become harder to knock off the ball.

Son reached double figures in goals scored in the past two seasons in Germany's Bundesliga. Given his credentials and obvious skills, it's difficult to believe that, only last September, South Korean coach Hong Myung-bo made a rather reluctant choice of Son for two friendly matches scheduled later the same month.

"I understand that a lot of people think highly of Son Heung-min, and I respect their opinions," Hong said at the time. "It remains to be seen whether he can contribute to the team and how well he can play."

   Hong became the head coach in June last year, and Son played his first match for Hong against Haiti in September. Son scored a goal in that very match and has been a fixture on Hong's left wing since then.

When Hong had earlier kept Son off his team, the implication was that Son wasn't a good team player and couldn't fit into Hong's system.

When working with a player of such immense talent, sometimes all coaches have to do is to let the player do his thing and build the system around such a player, not the other way around. It took Hong a few matches to realize Son should be unleashed on either flank and that he could wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

Son has the potential to be just the type of a finisher that South Korea, with its chronic scoring issues, desperately needs. Son also put in workmanlike efforts on his defense and did enough in Brazil to silence critics who panned him for being a one-dimensional player.

The man wears his emotions on his sleeve. After near misses during games here, Son was often down on all fours and slamming his hands down on the field in frustration. When the whistle blew on South Korea's loss to Belgium and sealed the country's fate at the tournament, no South Korean player was more inconsolable than Son.

He admitted that he is not a good loser. It offered a glimpse into his ultra-competitive nature, which bodes well for the future of South Korean football.

There's no telling just how much more Son can add to his already impressive arsenal by the time the next World Cup rolls around.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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