- Son Heungmin speaks exclusively with FIFA.com
- Reminisces about his boyhood hero Park Jisung
- Shares 2002 World Cup memories, 2018 ambitions
Son Heungmin was a month short of his tenth birthday when Korea Republic made history at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™. At the first global finals held in Asia, the Taeguk Warriors defied expectations by overcoming giants Italy and Spain in the knockout stages before bowing out against Germany in the semi-finals.
Son, along with the rest of his compatriots, was captivated as Korean stars such as Hong Myungbo, Ahn Junghwan and Seol Kihyeon fired Guus Hiddink’s side to unprecedented heights and propelled a nation into dreamland. But of those 2002 heroes, there was one that stood out for Son: Park Jisung.
“He’s still Korea’s top player. He’s still my idol,” smiled the Tottenham Hotspur forward, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com.
Nine years after watching his boyhood hero at Korea/Japan 2002, Son was sharing a pitch with him at senior international level. He would also go on to follow in the former Manchester United star’s footsteps by plying his trade in the English Premier League.
Now firmly established as the Taeguk Warriors star player, Son sat down with FIFA.com to talk London life at Spurs, his memories of the 2002 World Cup and Korea Republic’s ambitions having been drawn in a tough group at Russia 2018.
FIFA.com: It’s been 16 years since Korea Republic hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where the Taeguk Warriors reached the semi-finals. What are your memories of that tournament and how inspiring was that for you at the time?
Son Heungmin: I have a lot of good memories of that tournament. I watched the games on TV and I remember after the penalty shoot-out against Spain in the quarter-final, everyone was going crazy. We couldn’t believe it. We were excited to see South Korea at the World Cup. Everyone was wearing red shirts in 2002, including myself!
What’s your favourite memory of Korea Republic at that tournament?
When you play against Italy, Spain and beat them – that’s not an easy thing to do. Of course, there was home advantage, but we did extremely well. I can’t choose one moment from that World Cup. Every moment in 2002 was fantastic.
Who was your footballing hero growing up?
There were many players but, for me, it was Park Jisung. Many Premier League games were shown in Korea when I was young, especially Manchester United because he played there. During that time, he won many trophies. He’s still Korea’s top player. He’s still my idol.
What was it like to eventually play alongside him at senior international level?
I couldn’t believe it. I was 18-years-old when I played with him at the  Asian Cup in Qatar. Growing up, I was watching him on TV and right then, I was training alongside him. There were so many things you could learn from him. He was so professional. I was watching everything he was doing; what he ate, how long he slept. He was my room-mate and I couldn’t speak to him because I was too shy! It’s something I’ll never forget, it’s such an unbelievable memory. We still keep in contact. He’s not just a great player, he’s an amazing person as well.
You were at Brazil 2014. What was it like playing in your first World Cup?
I was very proud to represent my country [at the World Cup]. Everyone waits four years to play in the World Cup but not many get the chance to do so because qualification is so tough. Now that I have experience playing at Brazil 2014, I know how tough it is. We need to be ready. In 2014, we had a lot of young players and there weren’t too many who had that World Cup experience. Playing in your [domestic] league or World Cup qualification is completely different. As a team, we have to be ready.
Sweden, Mexico, Germany: what do you make of Korea Republic’s group at Russia 2018?
It’s a tough group. Every group is tough. Sweden are better than us, Mexico are better than us and Germany, of course, are better than us. But we want to win when we play, nobody wants to lose. Football is 11 versus 11. Of course, the quality makes a difference but mentally we need to be more ready than anyone else.
Is the aim for Korea Republic to progress from the group to the knockout stages?
Of course I want to say yes, but football is not just about ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If we perform well and everyone plays for each other, then why not? I hope we can go through. Of course, it’s a tough group but I still believe in my country. I’m proud of my country, I’m proud of my team-mates. I think we can do it but we need to be ready.
How are you enjoying life in England playing in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur?
It was always my dream to play in the Premier League and, still, it’s my dream. I can’t believe I’m playing there. I’m really enjoying London, it’s the greatest city in the world. I’m enjoying going to the training ground and training with unbelievable players. I enjoy playing at Wembley and travelling to away games. I’m enjoying every single moment. Before I go to sleep, I sometimes think this is all a dream. Playing in the Premier League is what I dreamed of when I was a boy. It’s unbelievable.
How has playing in the Premier League helped you improve as a player?
I’ve improved on a lot of things, both physically and mentally. How I play has changed a lot. I’m thankful to the management at Tottenham – they’ve made me one step better than when I was playing in the Bundesliga. The training sessions are really tough but they have helped me improve a lot as a player when I’m on the pitch playing for Spurs or my country.